President Joe Biden celebrated his conservation achievements Thursday with a Rose Garden address. The No. 1 item on his list? Blocking the Pebble mine, a proposed open-pit gold and copper mine upstream from the sockeye-rich waters of Bristol Bay.
“Bristol Bay is an extraordinary place, unlike anywhere in the world,” the president said. “Six rivers meet there, traveling through 40,000 miles of tundra, wetlands and lakes, collecting freshwater and salmon along the way … making this the largest sockeye salmon fishery on all the earth.”
Biden announced no new developments in the ongoing Pebble saga. His speech cited scores of sanctuaries and safeguards his administration created, from the mountains of Nevada to the Pacific Ocean. But the primacy he gave to this one part of Southwest Alaska shows how committed Biden is to stopping Pebble, and how he sees it as a centerpiece of his environmental record.
United Tribes of Bristol Bay Executive Director Alannah Hurley was invited to Washington, D.C., to introduce the president. In a blue print kuspuk, she spoke of how her salmon-centered community has lived with a threat looming over them for 20 years.
“But our people stood up and fought back to protect what we hold sacred. President Biden heard our voices,” she said. “He and his team listened to Bristol Bay and our many partners across the nation. And together we stopped the Pebble Mine.”
Biden said he listened to stakeholders and scientists and determined the mine – specifically the dam that would have to hold the waste rock in perpetuity – was too risky.
“In the end, we used our authority under the Clean Water Act to ban the disposal of mine waste and Bristol Bay watershed, period,” Biden said, to cheers from the invited guests. “That means the mine will not be built.”
Biden spoke of the mine as dead, but Hurley said mine opponents are still seeking “permanent, watershed-wide protections” through an act of Congress.
At least for now, the federal government is blocking the mine on two fronts. The Army Corps of Engineers denied Pebble’s permit application, and Pebble is appealing.
The larger problem for the mine developers is that the Environmental Protection Agency has essentially vetoed all plans to use the proposed mine site for rock disposal, meaning Pebble can’t just design a different dam and re-apply. The appeals of that decision could last years.
Hurley said there’s more work ahead. More than 20 other mines are proposed in the Bristol Bay watershed, and the EPA veto only protects two river systems. Still, she said, it was a day to relish victory. About a dozen Bristol Bay kids were at the White House for the ceremony.
“This is everything our people have been fighting for: To make sure that our children will know who they are, and will be able to continue to be Native people in Bristol Bay for generations to come,” she said. “So to see our kids with the president today, celebrating this monumental, historic victory for us was just profound.”
A Pebble spokesman declined to comment, but the company maintains the dam design is state-of-the-art and that the project doesn’t pose a risk to the fisheries.
WATCH: C-SPAN’s coverage of the event here.