Protection for Bristol Bay Is Within Reach

EPA issues a Recommended Determination under the Clean Water Act that, if finalized, would safeguard Bristol Bay from the Pebble Mine

EPA just released a recommendation under Section 404(c) of the Clean Water Act that would prohibit the Pebble Mine—a giant gold and copper mine proposed at the headwaters of the world’s greatest wild salmon fishery in Bristol Bay, Alaska. The Recommended Determination would also restrict future mining of the Pebble deposit in certain headwaters of Bristol Bay.

This is the closest any administration has come to the long-sought protection of Bristol Bay from the Pebble Mine under the 404(c) Clean Water Act process.

EPA first proposed protections for Bristol Bay under Section 404(c) of the Clean Water Act in 2014, and, after a series of legal and regulatory machinations, issued revised proposed protections earlier this year. The agency’s issuance today of its Recommended Determination is the next step in the 404(c) regulatory process.

The next—and final—step is for EPA to issue a Final Determination. Clean Water Act regulations provide EPA 60 days to make that decision.

Over the past decade, Bristol Bay residents, Tribal members, commercial fishermen, sportfishermen, conservation groups, chefs, investors, businesses, faith-based groups, and more have urged EPA to use its 404(c) authority to protect Bristol Bay from the threat of the Pebble Mine.

And for more than a year, the Bristol Bay Defense Fund—a diverse coalition of local, state and national groups representing Bristol Bay Tribes, commercial fishermen, businesses, and conservation groups—has called on the EPA to “Finish the Job” of protecting Bristol Bay.

Bristol Bay is an economic powerhouse, producing more than 50% of the world’s supply of wild sockeye salmon, generating $2.2 billion in annual economic activity, and supporting 15,000 jobs. It is also home to some of the last intact salmon-based cultures in the world.

Bristol Bay Tribes, commercial fishermen and groups like NRDC first petitioned EPA for Clean Water Act protections in 2010, prompting a three-year, twice peer-reviewed scientific assessment that concluded in 2014 with EPA issuing proposed protections under Section 404(c) of the Clean Water Act. The clock ran out on the Obama Administration after the Canadian owner of the Pebble Mine stalled that proposal in court.

Enter the Trump Administration, which ultimately withdrew the 404(c) proposed protections in 2019. We challenged the Trump administration’s unlawful withdrawal in court, leading to a Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals order reinstating the 404(c) process. EPA restarted the 404(c) process again in 2021.

The agency issued a revised proposed determination in May 2022—opening a public comment period that generated more than half a million comments, including a record 30,000 Alaskans and 2,500 Bristol Bay residents. 

A Final Determination protecting the headwaters of Bristol Bay is now in sight.

EPA can finish the job once and for all by finalizing strong, durable, and comprehensive 404(c) protections that will definitively safeguard the headwaters of Bristol Bay—and fulfill President Biden’s promise to protect Bristol Bay.

About the Authors

Taryn Kiekow Heimer

Deputy Director, Marine Mammal Protection Project, Nature Program

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