EPA Revives Permitting Process for Bristol Bay Copper Mine

Bristol Bay watershed (file image)

Published Jul 31, 2019 2:08 PM by The Maritime Executive

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has reversed its 2014 decision to halt the permitting process for the Pebble Mine, a proposed copper mine project at the headwaters of the world's largest salmon fishery. 

Research suggests that dissolved copper is hazardous to salmon at concentrations measured in millionths of a gram per liter. The EPA's previous analysis determined that the Pebble project posed unacceptable levels of risk to the Bristol Bay salmon population, in large part due to the potential for toxic levels of copper in stream water as a result of mine activity. 

Additional risks that the agency identified included habitat degradition from sediment and streamflow alterations across the 8,000-acre development site, and - in a worst case scenario - the possibility of a containment failure at the mine's waste tailings pit. A similar large-scale waste containment failure occured at the Mount Polley mine in British Columbia in 2014, releasing 24 million cubic meters of waste into the Fraser River watershed.

Early this month, EPA Region 10 (Alaska) confirmed that its assessment still matches the EPA's 2014 determination. “Region 10 finds that this project as described . . . may have substantial and unacceptable adverse impacts on fisheries resources in the project area watersheds, which are aquatic resources of national importance," wrote regional EPA administrator Chris Hladick on July 1.

By withdrawing the 2014 determination, which pre-emptively blocked Pebble Mine's permitting process, EPA can now move forward with reviewing the project in cooperation with the Army Corps of Engineers, Hladick said in a statement on July 30.

 "Finally, this administration has reversed the outrageous federal government overreach inflicted on the state of Alaska by the Obama administration," said Tom Collier, the CEO of mine developer Pebble Limited Partnership, in a statement Tuesday.  

In October 2017, Collier said that his firm had reached an agreement with the Trump administration's EPA appointees to move towards permitting. "When the new team came in . . . we pretty quickly resolved that we would drop all of our litigation and they would stop this foolishness of coming after us with a preliminary veto," Collier said. Pruitt resigned due to an ethics scandal in 2018 and was replaced by Andrew Wheeler, a former coal industry lobbyist.

If the Pebble Mine secures a federal permit, it could face a review in the state legislature. Under a ballot measure approved by Alaskan voters in 2014, the legislature is authorized to ban mining in the Bristol Bay watershed if it determines that the project would endanger salmon runs. The measure passed by a margin of 65 to 35. Last year, voters rejected a second ballot measure that would have placed new restrictions on any potential mining development that could endanger salmon runs. 

Fishing industry responds

The Bristol Bay fishery accounts for about half of the world's annual sockeye salmon take, making it the largest wild salmon fishery of any kind in the world. Its total economic impact is estimated at about $1.5 billion per year, according to an EPA assessment, and it supports an estimated 15,000 jobs.

Many of the Bristol Bay fishing companies have formed an opposition group, Commercial Fishermen for Bristol Bay, to push back against the Pebble Mine project. In a statement Thursday, the association criticized the Trump administration and Alaska Governor Michael Dunleavy for allowing the mine proposal to progress.

“Even those who are extremely pro-development have raised concerns about the negative impacts of this mine on Bristol Bay. In the face of those concerns, it is shocking that what few protections remain for this region are being further eroded," said fisherman Robin Samuelsen of Commercial Fishermen for Bristol Bay. "[This is] a dangerous project that threatens our way of life in Bristol Bay. Today’s decision is far from the end on this issue. Our people will continue to push for Bristol Bay’s permanent protection for as long as it takes, even generations - our fight is far from over and we are never going away.”