EPA Issues Landmark Clean Water Act Decision Protecting Bristol Bay Watershed from Pebble Mine

1 year ago 74

Today, Earthjustice joins with a broad and unified coalition of Tribes, Bristol Bay residents, commercial and sport fishers, environmental organizations, businesses, and many others to celebrate the Environmental Protection Agency’s Final Determination protecting the Bristol Bay watershed under Section 404(c) of the Clean Water Act.

The EPA’s Final Determination is a hard-won victory by all those who have been fighting for decades to stop the Pebble Mine project. It follows an earlier decision by the Army Corps of Engineers to deny a key permit to Pebble Mine. Collectively, these decisions effectively spell victory in the decades-long fight to protect Bristol Bay from Pebble Mine.

Earthjustice is honored to stand with Tribes and other regional leaders – the United Tribes of Bristol Bay, Bristol Bay Economic Development Corporation, Bristol Bay Native Association, Bristol Bay Native Corporation, local Tribes and municipalities, village corporations, non-governmental organizations, nonprofits and more – in thanking the EPA and the Biden Administration for listening to concerns raised by local and national stakeholders and taking this important step to protect this critical watershed and people it supports.

Two out of three Alaskans oppose the Pebble Mine and support these protections. If today’s Final Determination is challenged in court, as expected, those plaintiffs will not be representing the wishes of most Alaskans or many Americans.

Today’s decision is an important step in preserving Bristol Bay and its residents’ way of life. It will now be more important than ever for elected leaders to continue fighting to ensure Bristol Bay and its ecosystem will thrive and provide for future generations.

The following statements from Earthjustice and our clients were issued in response to today’s news. For additional quotes from the Bristol Bay region or to be connected with the Bristol Bay Defense Fund coalition, please contact Grace Nolan at grace@team-arc.com.

Bonnie Gestring, Northwest Program Director, Earthworks:

“We’re thrilled to see the Environmental Protection Agency fulfill its commitment to the people of Alaska to provide enduring protection for Bristol Bay, its economy, its salmon, and its people from the dangerous and destructive Pebble Mine. Congratulations to the Biden administration and EPA for seeing this landmark decision through. We are proud to stand in support of the Bristol Bay Tribes and commercial fishermen whose lives and livelihoods depend on this thriving fishery.”

Marc Fink, Senior Attorney, Center for Biological Diversity:

“We applaud the EPA for taking this critical step to protect the irreplaceable ecosystems of Alaska’s Bristol Bay. From salmon and grizzly bears to the rare Iliamna Lake seals, a remarkable array of wildlife depends on this watershed. This should be the final nail in the coffin of the disastrous Pebble Mine proposal, but we’ll keep fighting until this watershed is permanently protected.”

Erin Colón, Senior Attorney, Earthjustice:

“After a fierce, decades-long battle waged by the people of Bristol Bay and so many others, EPA today followed the law and science to establish enduring protections for the Bristol Bay watershed under the Clean Water Act. This is a major victory worth celebrating, but we cannot rest until even more permanent protections are in place. The Bristol Bay watershed is one of the world’s great ecosystems, and the way of life and the abundant future it supports is worth the fight. Earthjustice is committed to continuing to represent those who oppose unlawful and destructive mining projects like the proposed Pebble Mine.”

Background

Pebble Mine, a vast, open-pit copper and gold mine proposed in prime salmon habitat in the Bristol Bay watershed, has for decades threatened the way of life for the region’s residents and all others who depend on its abundant salmon populations. Today’s Final Clean Water Act Determination issued by the EPA should spell the end of the Pebble Mine proposal.

Years of litigation by Earthjustice and others on behalf of both regional and national clients have supported the coalition’s efforts to stop the Pebble Mine.

In 2010, six Bristol Bay Tribes asked the EPA to protect the Bristol Bay watershed from the Pebble Mine. An initial assessment released by the EPA in 2014 concluded a mine could have unacceptable impacts. Later that year, the EPA issued a Proposed Determination restricting the use of parts of the watershed to dispose of material from mining.

Unfortunately, Pebble Mine developers challenged those actions in three lawsuits against the EPA, asking the courts to throw out both the assessment and the Proposed Determination. Although those lawsuits did not succeed, EPA was temporarily blocked from finalizing the proposed protections.

Then in 2017, under the Trump administration, the EPA settled with the Pebble developers, agreeing to consider withdrawing its prior determination. Again, tens of thousands of concerned members of the public told the EPA to protect the Bristol Bay watershed. EPA reversed course and withdrew its prior determination to put protections in place.

In 2019, Earthjustice, representing Earthworks, joined Tribes, Tribal organizations, and many other Bristol Bay champions in a lawsuit challenging that withdrawal. Ultimately, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit agreed that the withdrawal was unlawful and reinstated the agency’s Clean Water Act decision process, clearing the way for EPA to follow the extensive scientific record supporting the need for protections. Earthjustice filed comments on behalf of Earthworks, Friends of the Earth U.S., and the Center for Biological Diversity urging EPA to finalize robust protections. Today’s Final Determination marks the culmination of that process.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers — the federal agency leading the process to permit the Pebble Mine — denied the key permit for Pebble Mine on Nov. 25, 2020. The Corps decision highlighted many of the concerns that opponents of the project, including Earthjustice, have pointed out all along. That denial is under appeal by the Pebble Partnership.

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