Update: EPA Withdraws Proposed Protections from Bristol Bay;  Pebble Mine Permit Application Proceeds

The Trump EPA in August 2019 withdrew a 2014 proposal to restrict discharge of mining wastes in Alaska’s Bristol Bay watershed, the largest sockeye salmon spawning area in the world.  The decision to withdraw proposed Clean Water Act protections boosted prospects for the controversial Pebble Mine, a proposed huge open-pit mine copper and gold mine.  The decision reportedly occurred after President Trump met with the Alaska governor, and surprised EPA staff working on the issue.

 EPA announced a settlement agreement in May 2017 that committed the agency to propose the withdrawal action, but then-Administrator Scott Pruitt suspended  the withdrawal action in January 2018.  Meanwhile, in December 2017, Pebble Limited Partnership applied for U.S. Army Corps of Engineers permits to  develop an open-pit mine 6,500 feet long by 5,500 feet wide, with depths up to 1,750 feet, along with a huge waste impoundment, power plant, transportation infrastructure, and pipeline.  The Corps in March 2018 began the process of considering the application, including preparation of an environmental impact statement.  The agencies took public comment on a draft EIS from March 1 to July 1, 2019.  A final environmental impact statement is expected in mid-2020.

For more information, see:

EPA web page: https://www.epa.gov/bristolbay

Corps of Engineers web page: https://www.pebbleprojecteis.com/

Los Angeles Times article on EPA's withdrawal action: https://www.latimes.com/world-nation/story/2019-07-30/pebble-mine-alaska-epa-salmon

CNN article on EPA's withdrawal action: https://www.cnn.com/2019/08/09/us/epa-alaska-pebble-mine-salmon-invs/index.html

... and the information below.

Proposed Withdrawal of Protections from Bristol Bay

Public Comment Closed October 17, 2017

Docket information @  https://www.regulations.gov/document?D=EPA-R10-OW-2017-0369-0001

What’s at Risk, Talking Points and What You Can Do

What's at Risk: EPA's 2014 Proposal

In July 2014 EPA proposed to restrict dumping of mining wastes in the Bristol Bay watershed in Southwest Alaska to protect salmon fisheries.

Based on a peer-reviewed scientific assessment,1 EPA Region 10 proposed a Clean Water Act determination2 that mining the metal-containing ores in the “Pebble deposit” could unacceptably harm fish habitat and fisheries. The assessment indicated that up to 94miles “of salmon-supporting streams,” and up to about 4,900 acres of wetlands and ponds, would be lost if mining were to occur on the scale envisioned by private interests. The assessment also warned of the possibility of a dam failure that could send wastewater surging into nearby streams and possibly Bristol Bay, damaging or destroying the salmon fishery. 

To protect the salmon fisheries, EPA Region 10 proposed to establish ceilings on the amount of damage that potential mining could cause to streams, wetlands, lakes, ponds and streamflow.  The smallest Pebble Mine envisioned in 2011 by the potential developer would produce enough waste rock and mine tailings to fill a professional football stadium more than 880 times, and the largest proposed mine, more than 3,900 times, according to EPA’s 2014 notice.

EPA Region 10, which includes Alaska, held hearings throughout Southwest Alaska to receive public input on the proposed determination, and the region received more than 670,000 written comments.

Trump Administration Rollback Proposal

On July 19, 2017, The Trump Administration proposed to withdraw the July 2014 proposed determination.

The Pebble Limited Partnership, whose subsidiaries own the mineral claims to the Pebble deposit, filed three lawsuits against EPA relating to the Agency’s work in the Bristol Bay watershed. In May 2017, EPA and the Partnership entered into a settlement agreement that calls for EPA to begin a process to propose to withdraw the proposed determination.3

In accordance with the settlement agreement, EPA requested public comment on two issues:

1. Whether EPA should withdraw the July 2014 proposed determination at this time; and

2. If EPA Region 10 decides to withdraw the proposed determination following the comment period, whether the EPA Administrator should review and reconsider that withdrawal decision as EPA’s regulations allow.

Suggested Talking Points on Proposed Withdrawal

The proposed determination should NOT be withdrawn for a number of reasons:

The potential impacts of the proposed Pebble Mine on the health of the Bristol Bay watershed and the livelihood of thousands of people in Alaska are too great to accept:

The watershed supports the largest sockeye salmon fishery in the world.

The watershed is home to 25 federally recognized tribal governments who have maintained a salmon-based culture and subsistence-based way of life for at least 4,000 years that would be placed in jeopardy.

The watershed’s ecological resources generated nearly $480 million in direct economic expenditures and sales and provided employment for over 14,000 full- and part-time workers in 2009.4

Contrary to comments by the backers of the Pebble Mine project, EPA’s watershed assessment was scientifically based and thoroughly peer-reviewed, and the public has had an extensive opportunity to comment on it. The assessment and public comments received should be key components of any future action on this issue.

The overwhelming majority of residents of Bristol Bay are opposed to the project.5  A statewide majority of voters also oppose it, as evidenced by the 2014 State-wide ballot measure.6

The rationale for the proposed withdrawal is flawed. Finalizing the proposed determination would provide much more regulatory certainty than withdrawing it, and a permit application is not needed to augment the factual record.

What You Can Do

It would be great if well-reasoned, fact-based comments were enough to win the day, but in today’s deregulatory environment, raising the political stakes of regulatory rollbacks is crucial to stopping or slowing them down.  For rules that are particularly important to you, please consider taking one or more of the following steps, too.

  • Write to your members of Congress and other elected officials.  Let them know your concerns and ask them to weigh in with the agency proposing the rollback.
  • Write letters to the editor and even op-eds in your local papers.
  • Organize or participate in letter-writing campaigns.
  • Join or organize demonstrations.
  • Talk to your friends, colleagues and neighbors and encourage them to comment and otherwise join in this effort.  Voicing your concerns on social media can be a very effective way to spread the word.

 Links for More Information

Bristol Bay Native Corporation. BBNC Very Disappointed in EPA, Trump Administration’s Pebble Mine Settlement. http://www.bbnc.net/bbnc-very-disappointed-in-epa-trump-administrations-pebble-mine-settlement.

Alaska Sporting Journal, "EPA Intends to Reverse 2014 Plan that Would Protect Bristol Bay." http://aksportingjournal.com/epa-intends-reverse-2014-plan-protect-bristol-bay/

Natural Resources Defense Fund web page: EPA to withdraw Water Protections, Open Door for Pebble Mine. https://www.nrdc.org/experts/taryn-kiekow-heimer/epa-withdraw-protections-bristol-bay-open-door-pebble-mine

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. An Assessment of Potential Mining Impacts on Salmon Ecosystems of Bristol Bay, Alaska (Final Report). U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Washington, DC, EPA 910-R-14-001A-C, ES, 2014.



1 U.S. EPA. An Assessment of Potential Mining Impacts on Salmon Ecosystems of Bristol Bay, Alaska (Final Report). U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Washington, DC, EPA 910-R-14-001A-C, ES, 2014.

2 EPA Region 10, Proposed Determination Pursuant to Section 404(c) of the Clean Water Act for Pebble Deposit Area, Southwest Alaska, July 21, 2014.  https://www.epa.gov/bristolbay/2014-proposed-determination-pursuant-section-404c-clean-water-act-pebble-deposit-area.

3 2017 EPA and Pebble Limited Partnership Agreement. https://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2017-05/documents/pebble-settlement-agreement-05-11-17.pdf

4 U.S. EPA. An Assessment of Potential Mining Impacts on Salmon Ecosystems of Bristol Bay, Alaska (Final Report). U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Washington, DC, EPA 910-R-14-001A-C, ES, 2014. Chapter 5.

5 United Tribes of Bristol Bay. Opposition to Pebble Mine Reiterated by local tribes, fishermen, business owners. http://utbb.org/opposition-to-pebble-mine-reiterated-by-local-tribes-fishermen-business-owners/

6 Alaska Bristol Bay Mining Ban, Ballot Measure 4 (2014). https://ballotpedia.org/Alaska_Bristol_Bay_Mining_Ban,_Ballot_Measure_4_(2014)

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Save EPA has been an all-volunteer group of former EPA officials who became alarmed about the Trump agenda for EPA and joined together to fight it.

With newly-elected President-Elect Biden and VP-Elect Harris coming in January, the need to "save EPA" is much less urgent. This is not to imply all clear skies ahead - there is much re-building to do, there will be negative pressures on the new administration, and we will likely have policy differences in the future. However, we are hopeful that these differences will be discussed rationally, using science as a basis for moving forward, and keeping EPA's mission of protecting human health and the environment in the forefront.

And so, we are going back to retirement!  We're keeping our website up at http://saveepaalums.info/ , as a resource for those who want to follow and influence the restoration work. Our report on the Trump record at EPA describes the actions that need to be reversed [saveepaalums.info/Trump+era+report], and our guide to participating in the rulemaking process [http://saveepaalums.info/Resistance+Guide] can help you be part of the solution.

Thank you for your support and commitment during the past 3.5 years.  While the Trump assaults were unending, they were also frequently unsuccessful, and that was due in large part to public outrage.  Keep it up!  Although EPA will be in much better hands with a Biden administration, there is always a need for an informed and engaged public.