EPA Seeking Public Comment on Withdrawal of Clean Water Act Determination for Pebble Mine

Bristol Bay Sockeye Salmon. Photo by Thomas Quinn, University of Washington.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is proposing to withdraw a July 2014 Clean Water Act 404(c) Proposed Determination that would have, if finalized, imposed restrictions on the discharge of dredged or fill material associated with mining the Pebble Deposit in Alaska’s Bristol Bay watershed. Section 404(c) of the Clean Water Act allows the EPA to restrict, prohibit, deny or withdraw the use of an area as a disposal site for dredged or fill material if the discharge will have unacceptable adverse effects on municipal water supplies, shellfish beds and fishery areas, wildlife, or recreational areas.

The Bristol Bay watershed in Alaska is a pristine 40,000 square mile area crisscrossed by rivers and dotted with lakes. Its waterways support subsistence hunters, fishing tourism, and a diverse array of wildlife. The area boasts the world’s most productive salmon run, where millions of fish return to spawn every summer. Bristol Bay supplies half of all Sockeye Salmon sold on the global market.

Massive gold and copper deposits worth an estimated $350 billion are present in the Bristol Bay watershed. In 2002, Northern Dynasty Minerals proposed the Pebble Mine project on 186 square miles of state-owned land for which it held the mineral rights. The company teamed up with three mining companies to form the Pebble Limited Partnership (PLP) in hopes of developing the mining project. The mine, if constructed, would be the largest open pit mine in North America.

In 2010, fishermen, seafood businesses, and Alaska Native tribes petitioned EPA to use its authority to preemptively block PLP’s 404 permit. Over the next few years, EPA developed the Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment which described the Bristol Bay ecosystem and its human uses and evaluated the likely effects that the project would have on the ecosystem’s structure and function. The assessment concluded that healthy, unperturbed habitat is one of the primary reasons that Bristol Bay salmon runs have remained strong and that the potential adverse impacts of mining would be difficult to mitigate given the size and remote location of the deposit.

In July 2014, EPA exercised its 404(c) authority and issued a Proposed Determination that specified the conditions under which a mine could proceed without doing irreparable environmental harm.  The conditions made it unlikely that the mine could operate profitably.  In response, PLP filed suit against the EPA to prevent the determination from becoming final.

In May 2017, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt announced a settlement between the EPA and the PLP.  The terms of the settlement required the PLP to drop its suit and in return EPA agreed not to finalize the determination for 48 months from the effective date of the settlement agreement or until issuance of a final environmental impact statement on PLP’s permit application, whichever comes first.  PLP would have to file a permit application within 30 months to take advantage of this forbearance. The settlement agreement does not require or guarantee that PLP will submit a permit application, nor does it guarantee or prejudge a particular outcome of that permitting process or EPA’s decision-making under section 404(c).

Comments can be submitted here. The comment period will close October 17, 2017.