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EPA proposes to veto Pebble Mine to protect salmon-rich Bristol Bay

Area of the proposed Pebble Mine. (Jason Sear/KDLG)
Area of the proposed Pebble Mine. (Jason Sear/KDLG)

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is proposing protection for the Bristol Bay watershed that would permanently ban the Pebble Mine.

The EPA announced the proposed ban Wednesday morning, using its authority under a section of the Clean Water Act called 404(c). It’s the “veto” of Pebble that fishermen and tribes in the Bristol Bay region have requested for years.

“Where that mine is is the spawning beds of the greatest salmon-producing rivers in the world,” Curyung tribal chief Tom Tilden said earlier this month at the U.S. Capitol. He’d gone there to press for a mine veto, as he and others have done many times before.

The company seeking to build the open-pit gold and copper mine, Pebble Limited Partnership, has said it would enrich the region with good salaries and other income.

It has repeatedly argued that its state-of-the-art mine design will have no significant effect on Bristol Bay’s fish run.

EPA’s new Region 10 administrator, Casey Sixkiller, does not see it that way.

“Two decades of scientific study show us that mining the Pebble Deposit would cause permanent damage to an ecosystem that supports a renewable economic powerhouse and has sustained fishing cultures since time immemorial,” Sixkiller said in the EPA news release announcing the proposal.

As an example, the EPA notes that the mine plan calls for destroying 8.5 miles of fish streams.

The EPA action would be similar to the veto the Obama administration proposed in 2014. That one was called a “pre-emptive veto” because it came before the Pebble Partnership had submitted its permit application.

During the Trump presidency, Pebble finally submitted a mine plan. But the Republican-led government seemed to be of two minds. The EPA took steps toward dismantling the Obama administration’s barriers to mine development but reversed course, and then reversed course again.

Ultimately, in late 2020, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers rejected Pebble’s permit application to dredge and fill in the area. Pebble is appealing that decision.

The EPA’s latest proposal is broader. If made final, it would ban any dredging or filling of federal waters and wetlands in service of mining the Pebble Deposit, at least within the footprint of the mine plan Pebble drafted.

The EPA’s proposed ban will be published in the Federal Register this week and will be the subject of public hearings next month. The agency will accept written comments through July 5.