Federal Court Reverses Withdrawal of Bristol Bay Watershed Protections

Bristol Bay watershed
A map of the Bristol Bay watershed. Image courtesy of the United States Environmental Protection Agency.

A federal judge in Anchorage has vacated the Environmental Protection Agency’s 2019 decision to withdraw protections for the Bristol Bay watershed in Southwest Alaska, reinstating proposed protections under the Clean Water Act for the world’s largest wild salmon fishery.

The decision announced Friday, Oct. 29, was hailed by commercial fishermen, Alaska Native and environmental entities, who are now asking the EPA to complete the 404(c) process under the Clean Water Act by June 2022, when millions of salmon will again return to the Bristol Bay river system.

The proposed protections would limit how much mine waste could be released by developers of the proposed copper, gold and molybdenum Pebble mine into streams, rivers and wetlands at the headwaters of Bristol Bay.

The decision by U.S. District Court Judge Sharon Gleason was hailed by Katherine Carscallen, executive director of Commercial Fishermen for Bristol Bay as a step forward in protecting the watershed, but Carscallen added that she would not be truly comfortable until final action by the EPA to permanently protect Bristol Bay.

“The EPA has a commitment to follow the science and the law in their decisions and that work has already been done,” Carscallen said. “It is time for EPA to finish the job.”

Pebble Partnership spokesperson Mike Heatwole, in Anchorage, said the mine proponents would work with the state of Alaska and the EPA “to demonstrate facts and technical information about Pebble development while continuing with our focus on the appeal before the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.”

Heatwole also stated that “the previous EPA action was based on a flawed hypothetical scenario and not on an actual, detailed mine plan as was submitted for permitting by the Pebble Partnership to the USACE.”

“Following a thorough and comprehensive environmental review process, the USACE determined that Pebble could be developed without harm to (the) Bristol Bay fishery, without impact on water quality, and would provide significant economic opportunities and jobs for the region and communities near the project,” he added.

The PLP is a wholly owned subsidiary of Northern Dynasty Minerals, itself a subsidiary of Hunter Dickinson Inc., a diversified global mining group headquartered in Vancouver, British Columbia.

Austin Williams, Alaska legal and policy director for Trout Unlimited, a plaintiff in the litigation said the decision “gets us back on track to finalizing protections for Bristol Bay’s headwaters and its world class fisheries.”

“As the science has shown time and time again, large scale mining in the Bristol Bay headwaters would be catastrophic to the region’s fisheries, its economy and its vibrant cultures,” Williams said.