Biden Administration Moves to Protect Key Alaska Watershed

The Biden administration said on Thursday it will relaunch a process that could permanently protect a vital Alaskan watershed from development of the contentious Pebble Mine project that has been pursued for more than a decade.

The Department of Justice asked in an Alaska federal district court filing that the court vacate a 2019 decision by the Trump-era Environmental Protection Agency to remove protection of the Bristol Bay watershed.

If the court grants the request, it would automatically reinstate the EPA’s Clean Water Act Section 404 review process. The agency could then resume an effort to protect certain waters in the Bristol Bay watershed, whose streams, wetlands, lakes and ponds are home to North America’s most productive salmon fisheries of five types of salmon: coho, Chinook, sockeye, chum and pink.

“The Bristol Bay Watershed is an Alaskan treasure that underscores the critical value of clean water in America,” said EPA Administrator Michael Regan. “What’s at stake is preventing pollution that would disproportionately impact Alaska Natives, and protecting a sustainable future for the most productive salmon fishery in North America.”

In July 2019, the Trump administration EPA withdrew a proposed Clean Water Act Section 404(c) “proposed determination” from 2014 that, if finalized, could have permanently prevented development of the open-pit gold and copper Pebble Mine.

But the Army Corps of Engineers under former President Donald Trump denied a key permit for the mine in November 2020 amid opposition to the mining project by Alaska’s Republican U.S. senators and by Trump’s son, Donald Trump Jr, who had lobbied to protect the area’s fishing and hunting resources.

The Pebble Limited Partnership, whose parent company is Canadian mining company Northern Dynasty Minerals Ltd , has been pursuing the mining project and had challenged the Army Corps’ decision in the courts.

Northern Dynasty did not comment on the EPA announcement on Thursday but published an economic assessment of the proposed mine, saying its annual gross revenue would be $1.7 billion.

This year, the Bristol Bay sockeye salmon run hit a record, even as other runs around Alaska struggled.

Bristol Bay salmon runs are important to wildlife in surrounding national parks and refuges, especially the Katmai National Park “fat bears” that are watched by webcam and voted on every fall.

The 15 Indigenous tribes that live in the area welcomed the EPA announcement and called for permanent protection of the watershed.

“The people of Bristol Bay are counting on the EPA to listen to the science and finish the job of protecting our lands and waters,” said Robert Heyano, President of United Tribes of Bristol Bay. 

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