The EPA announced on Friday that they are initiating "a process under the Clean Water Act" to identify options available to them to protect the Bristol Bay salmon industry from "potential destructive impacts of the proposed Pebble mine." They state that "during this process, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers cannot approve a permit for the mine."
They point out that the action does not reflect any change in policy toward mine permitting. The action was requested by EPA administrator Gina McCarthy.
“Extensive scientific study has given us ample reason to believe that the Pebble Mine would likely have significant and irreversible negative impacts on the Bristol Bay watershed and its abundant salmon fisheries,” said EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy. “It’s why EPA is taking this step forward in our effort to ensure protection for the world’s most productive salmon fishery from the risks it faces from what could be one of the largest open pit mines on earth. This process is not something the Agency does very often, but Bristol Bay is an extraordinary and unique resource.”
The EPA says that it is basing this action on data collected during the Bristol Bay ecological risk assessment as well as mine plans that Pebble submitted to the Securities and Exchange Commission as well as other available information.
Today, Dennis McLerran, EPA Regional Administrator for EPA Region 10, sent letters to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the State of Alaska, and the Pebble Partnership initiating action under EPA’s Clean Water Act Section 404(c) authorities.
“Bristol Bay is an extraordinary natural resource, home to some of the most abundant salmon producing rivers in the world. The area provides millions of dollars in jobs and food resources for Alaska Native Villages and commercial fishermen,” McLerran said. “The science EPA reviewed paints a clear picture: Large-scale copper mining of the Pebble deposit would likely result in significant and irreversible harm to the salmon and the people and industries that rely on them.”
In 2010, several Bristol Bay Alaska Native tribes requested that EPA take action under Clean Water Act Section 404(c) to protect the Bristol Bay watershed, the area that produces nearly 50 percent of the world’s wild sockeye salmon with runs averaging 37.5 million fish each year. The Pebble deposit is located at the headwaters of Nushagak and Kvichak rivers, which produce about half of the sockeye salmon in Bristol Bay.
The Clean Water Act generally requires a permit under Section 404 from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers before any person places dredge or fill material into wetlands, lakes and streams. Mining operations typically involve such activities and must obtain Clean Water Act Section 404 permits. Section 404 directs EPA to develop the environmental criteria the Army Corps uses to make permit decisions. It also authorizes EPA to prohibit or restrict fill activities if EPA determines such actions would have unacceptable adverse effects on fishery areas.
The steps in the Clean Water Act Section 404(c) review process are:
- Step 1 – Consultation period with U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and owners of the site, initiated today.
- Step 2 – Publication of Proposed Determination, including proposed prohibitions or restrictions on mining the Pebble deposit, in Federal Register for public comment and one or more public hearings.
- Step 3 – Review of public comments and development of Recommended Determination by EPA Regional Administrator to Assistant Administrator for Water at EPA Headquarters in Washington, DC.
- Step 4 – Second consultation period with the Army Corps and site owners and development of Final Determination by Assistant Administrator for Water, including any final prohibitions or restrictions on mining the Pebble deposit.
EPA has received over 850,000 requests from citizens, tribes, Alaska Native corporations, commercial and sport fisherman, jewelry companies, seafood processors, restaurant owners, chefs, conservation organizations, members of the faith community, sport recreation business owners, elected officials and others asking EPA to take action to protect Bristol Bay.
Following the EPA announcement, the Chief Executive Officer of the Bristol Bay Native Corporation, Jason Metrokin, stated in a release, “Bristol Bay Native Corporation appreciates that EPA will identify appropriate options to protect Bristol Bay from the risks Pebble poses. While BBNC supports responsible development, including mining, the science has shown that the proposed Pebble mine presents unacceptable risks to Bristol Bay salmon, people and existing economies. BBNC shareholders and area residents overwhelmingly agree. We will continue to focus on ending the threat of the proposed Pebble mine and on creating other appropriate economic opportunities and jobs.”
Senator Murkowski wrote of the process initiated by the EPA, saying, “If EPA’s action today in effect prejudges this project, the process EPA has outlined could establish a terrible precedent that only further detracts from investors’ willingness to bring capital and jobs to Alaska,”
Senator Mark Begich weighed in on the EPA decision to initiate a 404(c) process for Pebble Mine, saying, “While I am a strong supporter of responsible resource development – including mining – I have said the Pebble Mine is the wrong mine in the wrong place. However, I am skeptical of federal overreach from an administration that has already demonstrated it does not understand Alaska’s unique needs. The residents of Bristol Bay and Alaska Peninsula need certainty to plan their future and I will be making sure the administration does not take any actions that could have unintended consequences down the road for this region or other development projects in Alaska.”
The blocking of the Pebble Mine has been undertaken by Native groups, environmentalists, as well as fishermen, but has been called “federal overreach” by Republican state leaders.