EPA Makes the Right Move for Bristol Bay, Starts 404(c) Process on Pebble Mine


Today the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency took the first regulatory step toward securing a healthy future for Bristol Bay. 


Photograph © 2014 Robert Glenn Ketchum

Responding to overwhelming public demand for the protection of Bristol Bay from the proposed Pebble Mine, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency invoked a rarely used process under the federal Clean Water Act to protect the Bristol Bay in southwest Alaska from the proposed project.  Called section 404(c), the provision allows the agency to “prohibit, restrict, deny, or withdraw” an area at risk of “unacceptable adverse effects” on water, fisheries, wildlife, or recreation resources.  EPA has used the process 13 times in the 40-year history of the Clean Water Act. 

This puts EPA's eyes on the prize, and EPA should be loudly applauded for doing its job. Bristol Bay is the richest salmon habitat in the world, and we simply can't let Pebble Mine put that at risk. EPA has the tools to protect this national treasure for the people and wildlife that depend on it.  In short, the science is sound, EPA’s legal authority is clear, and the people of Bristol Bay, by overwhelming numbers, have demanded protection.

In a letter issued to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, EPA Region 10 Administrator Dennis McLerran informed the Corps that “the Agency is taking this step because it has reason to believe that porphyry copper mining of the scale contemplated at the Pebble deposit would result in significant and unacceptable adverse effects to important fishery areas in the watershed.”

The agency continued:

The issues before us in this review focus on the fact that the streams, rivers, wetlands, lakes and other waters in the area of the Pebble deposit comprise one of the most productive, pristine, valuable and vulnerable ecosystems remaining in North America today. Based on information provided by Pebble Limited Partnership and Northern Dynasty Minerals, mining the Pebble deposit will involve excavation of the largest open pit ever constructed in North America, completely destroying an area as large as 18 square kilometers and as deep as 1.24 kilometers. Disposal of waste material will require construction of up to three waste impoundments covering an additional 50 square kilometers.

This action comes at the request four years ago of nine federally-recognized tribes from the Bristol Bay region, commercial fishermen, and others seeking the agency’s intervention to protect the wild salmon fisheries and the communities that depend on them from large-scale mining like the Pebble Mine -- the proposal by foreign mining companies (“Pebble Partnership”)  to site a massive copper and gold mine in the headwaters of Bristol Bay. 

EPA responded to the petitions by undertaking a three-year comprehensive scientific study of the effects of such a mine on the natural reosurces and people of the region. EPA completed that study last month and found that Pebble Mine would have “significant” and potentially “catastrophic” impacts on the watershed and its famed salmon runs – and the $1.5 billion annual commercial fishery, 14,000 jobs, subsistence fishing, sports fishing, communities, and wildlife that the salmon support.  This is more than enough information to meet the regulatory threshold for starting the 404(c) process.

In starting the process, the agency is sending a letter to the Army Corps of Engineers, the state of Alaska and the Pebble Partnership seeking their response to the action and, more specifically, their views on why they believe the operation would not damage the pristine watershed. They will have 15 days to respond.  Once that initial step is completed, EPA could issue a "proposed determination" that lays out whether the Pebble Mine can discharge waste into the area – waste that would be generated in the construction and operation of the Pebble Mine --, and, if so, where and how much. The public will have an opportunity to comment on the proposal, after which EPA could issue a final determination.

EPA’s action comes days after more than 30 leaders from an unprecedented coalition of Alaska Natives, commercial fishermen, sportsmen, business owners, and faith leaders converged in Washington, D.C. and urged the agency to use its authority under Section 404(c) of the Clean Water Act to protect Bristol Bay from large-scale mining like the proposed Pebble Mine.

It's time to say no to the Pebble Mine.