EPA Announces Next Steps in Process to Protect Bristol Bay Watershed Under Clean Water Act Authority
On November 17, 2021, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced it would make a decision by May 31, 2022, to either withdraw the 2014 Bristol Bay Proposed Determination (PD) or to issue a Recommended Determination (RD). This deadline will give EPA time to consider all the new information about the proposed Pebble mine learned through the NEPA review of its 2017 Clean Water Act permit application. Should EPA issue an RD, that would be a significant step towards a Final Determination that would help protect the waters of Bristol Bay. To read the full EPA press release, click here.
After Permit Denial, Bristol Bay Still Needs Durable, Long-Term Solutions
In November, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers rejected the key federal permit for Pebble mine. While this was unquestionably good news, it is not the end of the fight over Pebble Mine.
While the current iteration of Pebble was rejected, the Pebble Limited Partnership (PLP) and the threat of large-scale, open-pit mining in Bristol Bay are not going away. As long as there is a need for copper or gold, powerful interests will want to mine those minerals from the Pebble deposit. That’s why Bristol Bay needs additional legislative measures. BBNC is working with Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski, allies in Congress from both parties, and other regional stakeholders to advance a solution that both protects Bristol Bay and its salmon resource while funding sustainable economic opportunities for southwest Alaska. BBNC is committed to pursuing this path because our region deserves a durable solution to Pebble and new economic opportunities for our people.
Why BBNC Opposes Pebble Mine
Since 2009, Bristol Bay Native Corporation has formally opposed the proposed Pebble mine at the headwaters of the Nushagak and Kvichak Rivers in Bristol Bay, Alaska. These rivers support the prolific salmon runs in Bristol Bay, which produce tens of millions of sockeye salmon every year and support a billion-dollar commercial fishing industry, 14,000 fishing jobs, a robust sportfishing and tourism economy, and our Alaska Native way of life. The gold and copper mine, which would produce billions of tons of wasterock stored in perpetuity behind a massive earthen dam, would threaten all that Bristol Bay holds dear. Our views on Pebble mine are based on our “fish first” value – and the opinions of the vast majority of our over 10,300 Alaska Native shareholders.
We are opposed to the Pebble mine because science has proven it will have unacceptable, adverse impacts to Bristol Bay’s watershed. Even the conservative and incomplete Final Environmental Impact Statement (Final EIS) for the mine plan estimates that Pebble could destroy over 3,000 acres of pristine wetlands and 105 miles of streams, while mining less than 13% of the ore body located at Pebble. Top executives at Pebble Limited Partnership (PLP) and parent company Northern Dynasty Minerals (NDM) acknowledge that the mine will be much larger and potentially in operation for 180 years or longer.
Our late Republican Senator Ted Stevens’ words still ring true: “Pebble is the wrong mine in the wrong place.”
Our Leadership’s Views
“In order to best protect the land of Bristol Bay and the way of life for current and future generations of BBNC shareholders, BBNC must do its part to protect the sustainable natural resources of our region. Development of the Pebble mine would threaten the Bristol Bay fishery and the world-class salmon run which has served as the heart of our subsistence lifestyle, supporting our people for generations. BBNC’s firm opposition to Pebble is consistent with the values of cultural and economic sustainability to which we hold ourselves.” – Joe Chythlook, Past BBNC Chairman
“BBNC does not otherwise oppose mining development. Pebble mine is simply different. In any configuration, the mine is too big and will be located in too important of a location. It poses unacceptable risks to the salmon resource and consequently, the subsistence lifestyle and economic interests of our shareholders.” – Jason Metrokin, BBNC President & CEO
After years of delay, the Pebble Limited Partnership (PLP) began the federal permitting process for Pebble mine in late 2017 through the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Comparable mines typically take five years or more to reach a final federal permit – it took six years for the Donlin mine in western Alaska – but the current timeline for Pebble is expected to last approximately three years. This is unprecedented for a mine that could be among the largest open-pit mines in North America and would be located in a uniquely sensitive watershed ecosystem.
The Corps of Engineers completed the Final EIS for Pebble in July 2020. The Final EIS is intended to provide the scientific rationale for approving or denying the federal Clean Water Act permit for the mine. The Final EIS for Pebble, beset by flaws and inadequacies along with critical comments from multiple state and federal agencies, still clearly demonstrates that Pebble would have extensive impacts on Bristol Bay’s wetlands and rivers. In addition, the Final EIS does not address the fact that PLP has yet to obtain permission to use lands necessary for its transportation corridor north of Lake Iliamna, including subsurface lands and resources owned by BBNC.
On August 24, 2020, the U.S. Army Corps announced that Pebble mine “could not be permitted” as proposed, based largely on its inadequate compensatory mitigation plan. The Corps subsequently denied PLP’s permit application because it determined that Pebble would cause unavoidable adverse impacts to the region’s waters and was contrary to the public interest.
Alaskans Oppose Pebble Mine
In a state known for its support of resource development, Alaskans have consistently opposed Pebble mine. Most recently, a survey of likely November 2020 voters taken in June 2020 shows Alaskans oppose the mine by a 2-1 margin (62% to 31%). BBNC’s own polling has shown similar results, with a majority of Alaskans opposing the mine dating back to at least 2012. The mine is also opposed by 76% of BBNC shareholders, with majorities opposing the mine in every part of the Bristol Bay region, including communities closest to the mine site.
Moreover, since 2012, over 2.5 million comments have been submitted to EPA and other federal agencies expressing opposition to Pebble mine. The vast majority of comments from Alaskans have been in opposition. The depth and breadth of this coalition is unprecedented for a major resource development project.
Alaskans and residents in the lower 48 understand the importance of one of the world’s largest, and last, commercial sockeye salmon runs. Pebble has had over ten years to gain the public’s trust and continues to spend untold funds to gain support of Alaskans. But Alaskans aren’t buying what Pebble is selling.
Alaska’s Senators Weigh In
In September of 2019, Alaska Senator and Chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Lisa Murkowski included language in an appropriations bill report that expressed concerns with the permitting process and encouraged a permit denial if the concerns aren’t met.
Both Senator Murkowski and Senator Dan Sullivan supported the Army Corps’ August 2020 conclusion that the mine could not be permitted as proposed. Senator Murkowski said, “I agree that a permit should not be issued.” Senator Sullivan said, “I support this conclusion – based on the best available science and a rigorous, fair process – that a federal permit cannot be issued.”
“After this very rigorous, very thorough process, the [Army Corps of Engineers] has found that the Pebble project as currently proposed does not meet that high bar. And I have said, if you don’t meet the high bar, then a permit should not be issued,” said Senator Murkowski.
“We know we have an incredible resource in the region already, which is the salmon resource, so you can’t trade one resource for another…we had to make sure that the agencies, and the federal government, the White House, everybody was listening to Alaskans,” said Senator Sullivan. Later, Senator Sullivan further reiterated his opposition, stating “I oppose Pebble Mine. No Pebble Mine.”
And even more recently, Senator Murkowski reiterated her opposition to Pebble at the 2020 Alaska Federation of Natives Annual Convention stating, “I have been clear throughout that I oppose the project. I recognize the need for new economic development in Southwest Alaska. I think we all do. But I simply think this is the wrong mine in the wrong place.” Watch the video of her entire AFN statement on Pebble below.
What’s Next for Pebble Mine?
In November 2020, the Alaska District for the Corps of Engineers rejected PLP’s permit application for a Clean Water Act – a “devastating blow” to the project, as reported by the Washington Post. PLP is currently appealing that denial to the Corps’ Pacific Ocean Division. In May 2021, the Corps said it could take at least a year to review the appeal.
Regardless of the fate of PLP’s appeal, the current mine plan is rife with problems – from its compensatory mitigation plan, water treatment and storage, land ownership concerns, impact on anadromous fish species, and tailings and dam design, to name just a few.
Analysis of Permitting Documents
- FEIS Inadequate to Support Clean Water Act Permit – July 24, 2020
- Pebble Final EIS – A NEPA Process Still Off-Track – July 21, 2020
- Expert Agency Critique of Preliminary Final EIS – May 6, 2020
- Salmon Impacts – November 12, 2019
- Cooperating Agency Concerns with EIS – December 13, 2019
BBNC Letters and Comments
- Bristol Bay Groups Letter to DEC on Water Equality Certification – August 24, 2020
- Bristol Bay Request for Comment Period on New PLP Permit – August 23, 2020
- BBNC Letter to Corps on National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) Process – August 5, 2019
- BBNC Land Status Letter to Corps – June 19, 2019
- Bristol Bay Leaders Request Extension to DEIS Comment Period – February 5, 2019
- BBNC Letter to PLP – December 21, 2018
- BBNC Letter to PLP – December 7, 2018
- BBNC Leaders Express Concern about the Permitting Process – October 4, 2018
- Bristol Bay Leaders Urge Financial Backers to Leave Pebble – February 13, 2020
BBNC Comments on Draft EIS
- BBNC 404 and DEIS Comment Letter – July 1, 2019
- BBNC 404 DEIS Comments – Appx A – BBNC Property Interest – July 1, 2019
- BBNC 404 DEIS Comments – Appx B – History of EPA Watershed Assessment and 404c – July 1, 2019
- BBNC 404 DEIS Comments – Appx C – Pebble Mine Proposals Impacts to Waters and Anadromous Stream – July 1, 2019
- BBNC 404 DEIS Comments – Appx D – Data Gaps and Deficiencies – July 1, 2019
- BBNC 404 DEIS Comments – Appx E – Expert Reports – July 1, 2019
- BBNC 404 DEIS Comments – Appx F – Record Documents – July 1, 2019