Senate Bill Would Gut the Clean Water Act and Green Light the Pebble Mine

In lockstep with Congress's Big Polluter Agenda, Louisiana Republican Sen. David Vitter and West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin introduced a bill that would give industry a free pass to despoil Alaska's Bristol Bay by gutting EPA's authority under the Clean Water Act. Apparently identical to the "Regulatory Fairness Act" that Sen. Vitter unilaterally introduced several weeks ago, S. 234 is just another industry giveaway that would block EPA from doing its job under Section 404(c) of the Clean Water Act. It's aimed at green lighting the Pebble Mine in Alaska and the Spruce No. 1 mine in West Virginia.

S. 234 would expose the Bristol Bay region and its people to the risk of having North America's largest open-pit mine developed near the headwaters of an unparalleled fishery. And it would fundamentally rewrite the Clean Water Act by eviscerating EPA's ability to take immediate action to protect Bristol Bay.

Under Section 404(c) of the Clean Water Act, EPA may prohibit, restrict, deny or withdraw authorization for projects discharging dredged or fill material into waters of the U.S. "whenever" the agency finds "an unacceptable adverse effect on municipal water supplies, shellfish beds and fishery areas (including spawning and breeding areas), wildlife, or recreational areas." The key language is "whenever" - before, during, or after the permitting process. S. 234 would cripple EPA by restricting agency action to a tiny window of time during the permitting process. If the agency finds "unacceptable adverse impacts" either before or after the permitting process, then S. 234 will make it impossible for EPA to stop any environmental destruction under 404(c).

S. 234 is an industry give-away intended to restrict EPA from proactively protecting Bristol Bay from the Pebble Mine. (It would also retroactively nullify EPA's post permitting decision to restrict Spruce No. 1 mine in West Virginia.)

Rigorous scientific analysis has made clear that Pebble Mine would devastate the world's largest wild sockeye salmon fishery that generates $1.5 billion in annual revenue and 14,000 jobs. Salmon are the lifeblood of the region and have sustained Alaska Natives nutritionally, culturally and spiritually for thousands of years. Every year 30-50 million sockeye salmon return to the region's pristine rivers and streams, giving life not only to sustainable commercial and sports fishing industries but also to a wide variety of wildlife such as bears, eagles, whales and seals.

EPA conducted a three year scientific study of the effects of large-scale mining like the Pebble Mine on Bristol Bay, which included conducting two rounds of peer review, engaging the local and broader public, and reviewing over 1.1 million public comments. EPA's rigorous, comprehensive study concluded that "mining of the scale contemplated at the Pebble deposit would result in significant and unacceptable adverse effects to important fishery areas in the [Bristol Bay] watershed." EPA found that the Pebble Mine would have "significant" and even "catastrophic" effects on the region, including the destruction of up to 94 miles of streams and 5,350 acres of wetlands and other waters.

This is exactly the type of devastation that Section 404(c) was designed to prevent. But instead of following the science and the law, industry wants to permanently gut the Clean Water Act and get a license to pollute.

S. 234 ignores the reality that EPA has used its 404(c) authority sparingly. Out of the hundreds of thousands of 404(c) permits issued by the Army Corps of Engineers in the history of the Clean Water Act, EPA has used Section 404(c) only 13 times. Of those instances, 11 were under Republican administrations.

S. 234 also ignores the will of a broad coalition of Alaska Natives, fishermen, hunters and anglers, business owners, and conservationists - and hundreds of thousands of others - who petitioned EPA to take immediate action to protect Bristol Bay from Pebble Mine in advance of a permit application. Proponents of the Pebble Mine have been promising to submit permit applications for over a decade, and the uncertainty has resulted in anxiety and frustration in the region.

Pebble Mine is opposed by tribes, local business owners, environmentalists, conservationists, jewelers, chefs, religious leaders, a bipartisan coalition of local elected officials, the commercial and sports fishing industry, and over 1,000 hunting and angling organizations. Over 60% of Alaskans, 77% of Americans in the lower 48 states, and more than 80% of the residents of Bristol Bay oppose Pebble Mine. And by a margin of 65% in all precincts, Alaskans just passed the Bristol Bay Forever initiative - aimed at stopping large-scale mining like Pebble in the Bristol Bay watershed. Three major investors in the project - Anglo American, Rio Tinto, and Mitsubishi - have all withdrawn from the project.

Yet Congress is steamrolling ahead with its Big Polluter Agenda that would give the mining industry a free pass in Bristol Bay.

This is an attack on the Clean Water Act, Bristol Bay, and the people, wildlife, and 14,000 fish-related jobs that Bristol Bay supports -- and it must not stand. Click here to stop the Pebble Mine.