Pebble Mine: Stakeholder Concerns over Fisheries Impacts Sway EPA

After hearing directly from stakeholders and the people of Alaska, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is suspending its process to withdraw the proposed restrictions on Pebble Mine. This decision would leave the restrictions in place while the agency receives more information on the potential mine’s impact.  In a statement released on January 26, the agency said, “EPA has serious concerns about the impacts of mining activity in the Bristol Bay Watershed. From public comments to community meetings, stakeholders stressed the importance of balancing a singular mine venture with the risk to one of the world’s largest commercial fisheries.”

In September, the EPA took steps 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. Last summer, as part of a settlement with the proposed mine developer, Pebble Limited Partnership, the agency initiated the process for withdrawing the Proposed Determination. The agency sought comment on this action and has since reviewed the comments and the feedback from stakeholders. During the subsequent public comment period, more than one million comments supporting protections for Bristol Bay were submitted to the EPA with 26,000 from Alaskan citizens and business owners.

Administrator Pruitt stated, “Based on that review, it is my judgment at this time that any mining projects in the region likely pose a risk to the abundant natural resources that exist there. Until we know the full extent of that risk, those natural resources and world-class fisheries deserve the utmost protection. Today’s action allows EPA to get the information needed to determine what specific impacts the proposed mining project will have on those critical resources.”

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. In the case of Pebble Mine, the restrictions would have made it nearly impossible for the project to move forward due to the restrictions on the amount of mine waste that could be disposed of in the Bristol Bay area.  

Recently, Pebble Limited Partnership applied for the first of the many permits it will need to develop the mining project, initiating a multi-year NEPA review and EIS process.  The Army Corps of Engineers cannot issue a final 404 permit for the Pebble Mine while a Section 404(c) review is ongoing.

While this bit of good news is encouraging, stakeholders must continue to inform decision-makers about the potential impacts of the mine to Bristol Bay’s unimpaired watersheds and wild, sustainable, commercial, recreational, and subsistence fisheries as the permit process unfolds.