EPA to Withdraw Water Protections, Open Door for Pebble Mine

EPA just announced plans to withdraw its 2014 Proposed Determination that, if finalized, would have placed common-sense restrictions on the proposed Pebble Mine in Bristol Bay, Alaska. EPA’s Proposed Determination to protect Bristol Bay and limit the Pebble Mine came at the direct request of the tribes, communities, fishermen and businesses of Bristol Bay—and only after the agency undertook an extensive three-year, twice-peer reviewed scientific assessment that found a mine like Pebble would have “significant” and potentially “catastrophic” impacts on the Bristol Bay watershed.

Yet under new management, EPA reversed course and—pursuant to a May 2017 settlement agreement with the mining company—agreed to rollback its Proposed Determination.

Photo credit: Robert Glenn Ketchum

EPA concedes that its Proposed Determination “would not preclude [the Pebble Limited Partnership] from submitting an application and the Army Corps from reviewing that application.” Rather, it would have precluded the Army Corps from actually issuing a permit to the mine without EPA’s proposed restrictions.

Let me repeat: Even under the terms of EPA’s Proposed Determination, the Pebble Limited Partnership (PLP) could still seek permits, and the Army Corps could still review Pebble’s permit application.

So why is the agency bothering to waste valuable time and resources to withdraw its Proposed Determination?  According to EPA, it would “remove any uncertainty, real or perceived, about PLP’s ability to submit a permit application and have that permit application reviewed.”

What? EPA just clarified that PLP can seek permits and the Army Corps can review them. There is no uncertainty—the law is clear.

So why cater to a foreign mining company’s “perceived” uncertainty?  EPA doesn’t provide any reasonable explanation—or really any explanation at all. Instead, EPA just claims it’s the “appropriate” thing to do: “the Agency believes that withdrawing the Proposed Determination now, while allowing the factual record regarding any forthcoming permit application to develop, is appropriate at this time for this particular matter.”

EPA’s proposal is not appropriate for several reasons:

  • First, the facts have not changed. The proposed Pebble Mine would sit at the headwaters of Bristol Bay’s watershed, which is home to record wild salmon runs exceeding 50 million fish annually. Bristol Bay’s $1.5 billion annual sustainable commercial fishery provides 14,000 jobs and supplies half of the world’s sockeye salmon. Salmon are not only the linchpin of the region’s economy, but also its lifeblood, providing food, a subsistence-based livelihood, and the sustainable foundation for the language, spirituality and social structure of its tribal communities.
  • Second, the science has not changed. The Pebble Mine—as last proposed by the Pebble Limited Partnership to its investors and the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission—would generate up to 10 billion tons of toxic mining waste, covering an area larger than Manhattan and filling a major football stadium up to 3,900 times. Giant earthen dams—some larger than 700 feet tall—would be constructed to hold back the leach-prone mine tailings forever, all in an active earthquake zone. According to EPA’s three year, twice peer reviewed scientific assessment of mining impacts on the Bristol Bay Watershed—which evaluated three different mining scenarios—even the smallest mining scenario would destroy numerous miles of salmon streams and thousands of acres of wetlands.
  • Most important, the opposition has not changed.  More than 65 percent of Alaskans, 80 percent of Bristol Bay residents and Native communities, and 85 percent of commercial fishermen oppose the mine. The world opposes the mine too. Last year, the IUCN World Conservation Congress virtually unanimously adopted a motion opposing the Pebble Mine.

EPA’s proposed withdrawal is an outrageous capitulation to mining interests at the expense of the American people and our economy.

Instead of putting America first, it puts us dead last—behind the interests of a foreign mining company.

Instead of making America great, it undermines our greatest wild salmon fishery—which is currently experiencing one of the best seasons on record. For example, over one million salmon were caught in one day on one river in Bristol Bay.

Take action now. Tell EPA you stand with the people of Bristol Bay. Urge the agency to keep its Proposed Determination—and the common-sense restrictions it would impose on the Pebble Mine.

Fish First. Pebble Never!

About the Authors

Taryn Kiekow Heimer

Senior Policy Analyst, Marine Mammal Protection Project, Land and Wildlife Program

Join Us