SitNews - Stories in the News - Ketchikan, Alaska

EPA Withdraws Key Mining Restrictions for Bristol Bay Area



July 31, 2019
Wednesday PM

(SitNews) - Yesterday, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced that it is withdrawing Obama-era proposed restrictions on mining activity near southwest Alaska?s salmon- and bird-rich Bristol Bay region. 

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Region 10 Administrator Chris Hladick announced the withdrawal of the 2014 Proposed Determination issued under section 404(c) of the Clean Water Act (CWA) for the use of the Pebble Deposit Area in Southwest Alaska as a disposal site associated with mining of the deposit.

“After today’s [Tuesday's] action EPA will focus on the permit review process for the Pebble Mine project” said Hladick. “The agency has worked closely with the Army Corps to engage with stakeholders and the public on this issue, which has resulted in an expansive public record, including specific information about the proposed mining project that did not exist in 2014."

According to the National Audubon Society, the move clears the path for the Army Corps of Engineers to renew consideration of the massive Pebble Mine, which would be one of the world's largest open-pit mines for gold, copper and other metals.

jpg A view of Upper Talarik Creek which flows into Lake Iliamna in the Kvichak River watershed.

A view of Upper Talarik Creek which flows into Lake Iliamna in the Kvichak River watershed.
Photo courtesy EPA

The National Audubon Society is concerned because the project and its associated waste pits would carve a one-mile wide, one-mile long, and 600-foot deep mining pit in the watershed of habitat for spawning salmon and breeding birds. They say the proposed mine would destroy 3,500 acres of wetlands, lakes, and ponds, and over 80 miles of salmon streams.

Bristol Bay is home to the world'?s largest salmon fishery, valued at $1.5 billion and 14,000 jobs, as well as one of the world?s greatest concentration of seabirds and a robust tourism economy, all of which would be threatened if construction of the Pebble Mine were to proceed, says the Audubon Society.

"Thanks to Bristol Bay, Alaska feeds the world salmon, not gold,"? said Natalie Dawson, executive director of Audubon Alaska. "?Political pressure from the Trump Administration is prevailing over Alaskans' voices, public opinion, scientific studies produced by the EPA itself, one of the world?s most critical bird areas and the world's most valuable salmon fishery -- all for the sake of a permitting process that is being rushed through agency approvals."

Dawson said, " We call on Alaska's congressional delegation and on everyone who cares about Bristol Bay to hold the federal agencies involved accountable for these politically motivated actions that will bring irreparable harm to Alaska's most valuable, sustainable economic resources. They have the power to end this process and protect irreplaceable fisheries and bird habitat.?"

According to the EPA, by withdrawing the 2014 Proposed Determination which the EPA says was issued preemptively and is now outdated, the agency can continue its focus on fulfilling its responsibilities under the Clean Water Act to work with the Army Corps to review the permit.

However, Tuesday’s action does not approve Pebble’s permit application or determine a particular outcome in the Corps’ permitting process. Instead, it allows EPA to continue working with the Corps to review the current permit application and engage in the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process.

“Region 10’s decision restores the proper process for 404(c) determinations, eliminating a preemptive veto of a hypothetical mine and focusing EPA’s environmental review on an actual project before the Agency,” EPA General Counsel Matthew Z. Leopold.  

“Today’s [Tuesday's] announcement means the Environmental Impact Statement and permitting process for the Pebble Project currently being led by the US Army Corps of Engineers may advance to a final Record of Decision in 2020 without the cloud of uncertainty created by EPA’s unprecedented, pre-emptive regulatory action,” said Northern Dynasty President & CEO Ron Thiessen. “The Corps expects to finalize the Pebble EIS in early 2020 and issue a final Record of Decision by the middle of next year.” Northern Dynasty is 100% owner of the Pebble Partnership.

Pebble Partnership CEO Tom Collier yesterday hailed the decision by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to advance the removal of the proposed determination against the Pebble Project that has long been viewed as a preemptive veto of the project.

“Finally, this Administration has reversed the outrageous federal government overreach inflicted on the State of Alaska by the Obama Administration,” said Collier. “The preemptive veto was an action by an Administration that sought to vastly expand EPA’s authority to regulate land use on state, private and Native-owned lands throughout the United States, and in doing so kill one of America’s most important mineral projects before a development plan was proposed or a comprehensive Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) permitting review was undertaken."

Collier said, "The Proposed Determination ordered to be lifted today [Tuesday] was a preemptive veto that had never before been attempted in the 45-year history of the Clean Water Act – a fact acknowledged by the former Administrator’s senior staff.”

The formal withdrawal of EPA’s Proposed Determination is one of a series of important milestones that Pebble believes demonstrate it is progressing steadily toward a positive Record of Decision.

“The withdrawal of the Proposed Determination... the proposal for a smaller, environmentally optimized mine... the Draft EIS conclusions regarding the Bristol Bay salmon fishery... the published schedule for the Final EIS and Record of Decision... and the favorable political climate in Alaska – together, these factors give us a high level of confidence that we will get a permit,” Collier said.

jpg Pebble Mine Site

Pebble Mine Site
Map courtesy Pebble Partnership

The Pebble Project is expected to generate tens of millions of dollars in State government revenues each year at a time when the State of Alaska is facing a fiscal crisis. It is also expected to support some 2,000 Alaska jobs, with average compensation for mine workers in excess of $100,000 a year.

EPA Region 10 provided the Corps with detailed comments to its Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) and permit notice on July 1, 2019, and the EPA said it looks forward to continuing its work with the Corps and the other cooperating agencies on the next steps in the permit review process. 

The Corps closed the DEIS environmental review public comment period and indicated it will issue a final decision in 2020. All interested parties will be able to review the final decision. Alaska Native organizations already say the EPA failed to fulfill an agreement to consult them as part of its decision. Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski has also expressed concerns that the Corps? review has failed to meet her ?standard of a robust and rigorous process.?

Together with a coalition of Alaska native communities, the United Tribes of Bristol Bay, commercial and sport fishermen, subsistence hunters, and other concerned citizens, Audubon Alaska has been fighting for over a decade to help protect the rich resources of Bristol Bay from the threat represented by projects like the Pebble Mine.

Trout Unlimited called the move a “fundamentally boneheaded decision” and promises to look at all options - including litigation - to protect Bristol Bay from large-scale industrial mining.

According to the Northern Dynasty website, The current resource estimate includes 6.5 billion tonnes in the measured and indicated categories containing 57 billion pounds of copper, 71 million ounces of gold, 3.4 billion pounds of molybdenum and 345 million ounces of silver; and 4.5 billion tonnes in the inferred category, containing 25 billion pounds of copper, 36 million ounces of gold, 2.2 billion pounds of molybdenum and 170 million ounces of silver. Palladium and rhenium also occur in the deposit.

About: (Source EPA)

"The Bristol Bay watershed provides habitat for numerous animal species, including 29 fishes, more than 190 birds, and more than 40 terrestrial mammals. Chief among these resources is a world-class commercial and sport fishery for Pacific salmon and other important resident fishes. The watershed supports production of all five species of Pacific salmon found in North America: sockeye, coho, Chinook, chum, and pink.

Because no hatchery fish are raised or released in the watershed, Bristol Bay's salmon populations are entirely wild. These fish are anadromous - hatching and rearing in freshwater systems, migrating to the sea to grow to adult size, and returning to freshwater systems to spawn and die.

The most abundant salmon species in the watershed is sockeye salmon. The Bristol Bay watershed supports the largest sockeye salmon fishery in the world, with approximately 46% of the average global abundance of wild sockeye salmon. Between 1990 and 2010, the annual average inshore run of sockeye salmon in Bristol Bay was approximately 37.5 million fish. Annual commercial harvest of sockeye over this same period averaged 27.5 million. Approximately half of the Bristol Bay sockeye salmon production is from the Nushagak River and Kvichak River watersheds.

The Alaska Native cultures present in the Nushagak River and Kvichak River watersheds - the Yup'ik and Dena'ina - are two of the last intact, sustainable salmon-based cultures in the world. Salmon are integral to the entire way of life in these cultures as subsistence food and as the foundation for their language, spirituality, and social structure.

Fourteen of Bristol Bay's 25 Alaska Native villages and communities are within the Nushagak River and Kvichak River watersheds, with a total population of 4,337 in 2010.

In the Bristol Bay region, salmon constitute approximately 52% of the subsistence harvest. Subsistence from all sources (fish, moose, and other wildlife) accounts for an average of 80% of protein consumed by area residents.

These cultures have a strong connection to the landscape and its resources. In the Bristol Bay watershed, this connection has been maintained for at least the past 4,000 years and is in part due to and responsible for the continued pristine condition of the region's landscape and biological resources."


In July 2014, EPA Region 10 issued a Proposed Determination under CWA section 404(c) to restrict the use of the Pebble Deposit Area as a disposal site for dredged or fill material associated with mining the deposit. The Proposed Determination was based on three hypothetical scenarios for the mine site, each of which was different than the permit application submitted to the Corps for review in December 2017. Since 2014, there have been significant developments, including a lawsuit challenging the EPA’s process for developing the 2014 Proposed Determination and a related settlement, the permit application submitted by Pebble to the Corps, additional direction from the former EPA Administrator in January 2018, and a 1,400-page Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) and permit notice issued by the Corps. 

In July 2017, EPA Region 10 published a proposal to withdraw the 2014 Proposed Determination. The notice opened a three-month-long public comment period, during which the EPA held two public hearings in the watershed area and consulted with federally recognized tribal governments and Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act Regional and Village Corporations with lands in the watershed.  In December 2017, PLP submitted a CWA section 404 permit application to the Corps that proposes to develop a mine in the Pebble Deposit Area. The Corps then invited relevant federal and state agencies, including the EPA, to cooperate on the development of the DEIS under NEPA. The Corps released a DEIS for public comment in February 2019; this public comment period closed on July 1, 2019.

In January 2018, EPA announced that it was suspending the withdrawal proceeding and leaving the 2014 Proposed Determination in place at that time pending further action by the Agency.

In June 2019, EPA General Counsel Matthew Z. Leopold, acting pursuant to a delegation of authority from the EPA Administrator, directed Region 10 to resume its consideration whether to withdraw the 2014 Proposed Determination. He also directed the Region to reconsider its previous statement that it would seek additional public comment on the 2014 Proposed Determination, in light of the ample opportunity for public comment previously provided and the public comment opportunity on the DEIS and permit notice.

On July 1, 2019, Region 10 submitted to the Corps two sets of comments, totaling more than 150 pages, regarding the Corps’ DEIS and permit notice. The Region also took the first step under the elevation procedures established between the EPA and the Army in a 1992 memorandum to work towards resolving issues EPA identified in the permit notice. 

According to the EPA, yesterday's action removes the Agency’s outdated, preemptive proposed veto of the Pebble Mine and restores the "well-understood" permit review process.  EPA Region 10 reached this conclusion based on two primary reasons: 

First, the Corps’ DEIS includes significant project-specific information that was not accounted for in the 2014 Proposed Determination and, based on that information, the Corps has reached preliminary conclusions that in certain respects conflict with preliminary conclusions in the 2014 Proposed Determination.  The now-five-year-old Proposed Determination does not grapple with the currently available expansive record, including specific information about the proposed mining project that did not exist in 2014. 

Second, other processes are available and better-suited for EPA to resolve issues with the Corps as the record develops; specifically, the well-understood elevation process under CWA section 404(q) and the NEPA process.  EPA believes these processes should be exhausted prior to any decision by EPA, based upon all information that has and will be developed, to exercise its section 404(c) authority.  A detailed explanation of EPA’s decision is available in the notice signed today by EPA’s Region 10 Administrator, which will be published in the Federal Register. 


On the Web:

Additional information:

Source of News:

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

National Audubon Society

Audubon Alaska

Trout Unlimited

Pebble Project

Northern Dynasty


Representations of fact and opinions in comments posted are solely those of the individual posters and do not represent the opinions of Sitnews.

Submit A Letter to SitNews

Contact the Editor

SitNews ©2019
Stories In The News
Ketchikan, Alaska

 Articles & photographs that appear in SitNews are considered protected by copyright and may not be reprinted without written permission from and payment of any required fees to the proper freelance writers and subscription services.

E-mail your news & photos to

Photographers choosing to submit photographs for publication to SitNews are in doing so granting their permission for publication and for archiving. SitNews does not sell photographs. All requests for purchasing a photograph will be emailed to the photographer.