EPA Moves to Use Clean Water Act to Protect Bristol Bay Watershed

Efforts to protect fishery habitat in Alaska’s Bristol Bay are underway in Washington D.C., led by Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael S. Regan, who has declared the spawning grounds of the world’s largest wild sockeye salmon fishery a national treasure.

The EPA is seeking to reinitiate the process of making a Clean Water Act Section 404(c) determination to protect certain waters in Bristol Bay. Such a determination, if finalized, would protect over the long term waters essential to commercial subsistence and recreational fisheries, with other activities that support Alaska Natives and communities in the state.

“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,” Regan said.

In July 2019, under the previous administration, the EPA withdrew its 2014 Proposed Determination issued under CWA Section 404(c ), thereby terminating the review process for building a copper, gold and molybdenum mine abutting the Bristol Bay watershed.

The Ninth Circuit court ruled recently that EPA can withdraw a Proposed Determination “only if the discharge of materials would be unlikely to have an unacceptable adverse effect.” The current EPA said it felt that the 2019 withdrawal did not meet the Ninth Circuit’s standard. On remand from the Ninth Circuit, the federal district court in Alaska directed EPA to file a proposal for some additional court proceedings by Sept. 10.

The EPA announcement drew quick criticism from mining interests, including the Pebble Limited Partnership, which issued a statement saying it maintains their position that the withdrawal of the preemptive veto by the EPA was sound and appropriate.

Mine opponents, including commercial and sport fishermen, Alaska Native and environmental entities hailed the EPA announcement as a move toward permanent protection of Bristol Bay.

The decades long effort to permanently protect Bristol Bay and area residents from the Pebble mine is finally back on track, said Katherine Carscallen, executive director of Commercial Fishermen for Bristol Bay. Carscallen said the last four years have taught mine opponents that Bristol Bay is not safe from the Pebble mine until the EPA completes the Clean Water Act Section 404 (c) process.

Robert Heyano, president of United Tribes of Bristol Bay, called the EPA announcement a historic step forward in protecting the Bay, the fishery and the people of that region. Finalizing CWA Section 404 (c) protections for Bristol Bay would ensure that the famed wild salmon fishery and its 15,000 jobs and traditional salmon-based ways of life are no longer threatened by the proposed mine, said Tim Bristol, executive director of SalmonState, a nonprofit that works to keep Alaska a place where wild salmon and those who depend on them thriving.

Praise for the EPA’s action also came from Jason Metrokin, president and CEO of Bristol Bay Native Corp.

“The fight over Pebble Mine must be put to rest so the people of Bristol Bay can focus on what is important for the region’s future: enhancing our wild salmon-based economies and supporting responsible development consistent with protecting our unique salmon resource,” he said.