Pebble Permit Legal Battle Rises to U.S. Supreme Court

Clusters of sockeye salmon can be seen up and down Bristol Bay’s rivers during spawning season. Photo: Thomas Quinn, University of Washington.

State of Alaska officials are asking the U.S. Supreme Court to reverse a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) veto of a Clean Water Act permit needed for construction of the Pebble copper, gold and molybdenum mine on property abutting the Bristol Bay sockeye salmon fishery.

The “bill of complaint” filed by the state on July 26 argues that the EPA’s decision violates the state’s right to develop its natural resources for the maximum benefit of its people.

“Bureaucrats in Washington D.C. are exercising unbridled and unlawful power to choke off any further discussion on this important decision affecting so many Alaskans,” Gov. Mike Dunleavy said.  “It’s an indefensible and unprecedented power grab that the U.S. Supreme Court should find unlawful,” Alaska Attorney General Treg Taylor said.

Alaska Fish and Game Commissioner Doug Vincent-Lang said that Alaska’s Title 16 permitting process is designed to ensure conservation of fish and fish habitat.

“But these statutory protections were flouted by EPA before Alaska’s expert habitat and fish biologists had the opportunity to weigh in,” he said.

The state’s bill of complaint was heralded by Ron Thiessen, president and CEO of Northern Dynasty Minerals Ltd., in Vancouver, Canada, who called it “a welcome development in the long Pebble saga.”  Northern Dynasty is a subsidiary of Hunter Dickinson, a diversified, global mining group also based in Vancouver, BC.

The U.S. Supreme Court is on summer recess until Sept. 1, and after that may consider whether to accept the case if the EPA has filed its rebuttal to the state’s bill of complaint.

On Aug. 2, opponents of the mine released a new poll taken by the Bristol Bay Defense Fund, a coalition of business, tribal nonprofit and community organizations, showing strong concern among Alaska voters for protecting all of Bristol Bay from large-scale mining and in support of legislation to protect the watershed forever from large-scale mining.

“There is resounding and enduring support across parties and the state for protecting Bristol Bay’s waters, thriving salmon fishery, and our people and tribes that call this special place home. Gov. Dunleavy’s lawsuit challenging the EPA’s Clean Water Act protections ignores what Alaskans want and is another example he is willing to waste state resources to try and save a failing foreign mining company,” United Tribes of Bristol Bay Executive Director Alannah Hurley said.

“Our people have stewarded Bristol Bay for countless generations, and we will not rest until our watershed is permanently protected,” Hurley added. “We need our leaders to listen to the majority of Alaskans and take swift action to protect Bristol Bay forever.”

Earlier this year, EPA issued 404(c) Clean Water Act protections to end the threat of the Pebble Mine due to the adverse risks it poses to Bristol Bay’s waters and the surrounding ecosystem.

“Two decades of fighting Pebble Mine have illustrated that the majority of Alaskans want to see Bristol Bay protected from the threat of mining. Gov. Dunleavy’s lawsuit to undo EPA’s Clean Water Act protections demonstrates just how out of touch he is with Alaska,” Commercial Fishermen for Bristol Bay Director Katherine Carscallen said.

“It’s frustrating, but unfortunately not surprising—to see that after all this time, the governor is still putting the interests of a foreign mining company with a track record of violations and lies ahead of Alaskans, our economy, the $2.2 billion dollar annual commercial fishery in Bristol Bay, and the tens of thousands of jobs it supports,” she added.

The governor’s office, when contacted by Fishermen’s News, declined to directly respond to the comments by Hurley and Carscallen.