EPA Sets Schedule for Bristol Bay Protections

Demonstrating its commitment to ending the threat of large-scale mining to the world’s most productive wild salmon fishery, EPA announced a new timeframe for considering whether to permanently protect Bristol Bay and stop the Pebble Mine.

The timeline gives the agency until May 31, 2022 to decide whether to recommend permanent protections for Bristol Bay using its authority under Section 404(c) of the Clean Water Act.  If a Clean Water Act 404(c) determination is finalized, it would provide long-term protection for waters that, according to EPA, are “essential to commercial, subsistence, and recreational fisheries, and other activities that support Alaska Natives and communities in the state.” 

The agency’s announcement highlights EPA’s commitment to protect Bristol Bay, which generates $2.2 billion in annual revenue and 15,000 jobs, provides 57 percent of the world’s sockeye salmon, and sustains indigenous communities. 

In a news release, EPA Region 10 Acting Regional Administrator Michelle Pirzadeh emphasized the importance of the area: 

The Bristol Bay Watershed supports the largest sockeye salmon fishery in the world and highlights the essential benefits that clean water provides to the environment and to communities across the country…Today’s announcement underscores EPA’s commitment to making science-based decisions to protect our natural environment, prevent pollution, and protect a sustainable future for all Americans. 

Bristol Bay Tribes immediately celebrated the news. In a statement, United Tribes of Bristol Bay Executive Director Alannah Hurley said:

After almost twenty years, all the parties want certainty. We are pleased EPA is moving forward in a science-based and transparent manner, and with a schedule that can allow for resolution by next summer, consistent with the wishes of our Tribes and Alaskans.

The announcement comes more than a decade after Bristol Bay Tribes formally requested Clean Water Act protections—which led to a three-year, twice peer reviewed scientific assessment supporting 404(c) protections for Bristol Bay. In 2014, the Obama administration issued a Proposed Determination under Section 404(c) of the Clean Water Act to protect Bristol Bay. The Pebble Limited Partnership challenged that decision in court, tying EPA’s hands for years. After Trump was elected, his administration settled the litigation favorably to the mining company and ultimately withdrew the Proposed Determination in 2019.

Bristol Bay Tribes, NRDC, Trout Unlimited and others challenged that 2019 illegal withdrawal decision by the Trump administration. Last month, the U.S. District Court for the District of Alaska granted EPA’s request to remand and vacate the 2019 withdrawal—which reinstated EPA’s 2014 Proposed Determination.  

It also reset regulatory deadlines on EPA to either withdraw (again) the Proposed Determination or move forward under Section 404(c) of the Clean Water Act to protect Bristol Bay. The next step in the regulatory process is to prepare a Recommended Determination—followed by a Final Determination—that would prohibit or restrict large-scale mining activities in the Bristol Bay watershed. EPA has given itself a deadline of May 31st to make that decision.  

If finalized by EPA, a 404(c) determination could provide lasting protections for Bristol Bay—and prevent the Pebble Mine from ever being developed.  

Bristol Bay Tribes—as well as commercial fishermen, environmental groups, investment firms, businesses, and even Congress—have been urging EPA to permanently protect Bristol Bay from the ongoing threat of the Pebble Mine for decades. 

NRDC stands with the Tribes and people of Bristol Bay urging EPA to finalize the 404(c) determination before the 2022 fishing season. EPA’s announcement setting the timeline to proceed by May 31st does just that—and demonstrates its clear commitment to using law and science to protect the national treasure that is Bristol Bay.  

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