Recreational anglers, commercial fishermen, native tribal members, lovers of wild places and defenders of common sense worldwide breathed a massive sigh of relief when, in 2014, the Obama administration finally delivered what so many had spent years tirelessly working for: a Clean Water Act 404(c) veto that would prevent the use of certain Bristol Bay watersheds for use as disposal sites for dredge or fill material. Or, in other words, it would block construction of Pebble Mine.
Despite the unequivocal conclusions of the EPA's own investigations and the clearly stated will of the American people, under the Trump administration Bristol Bay is once again at risk from Pebble Mine again. Industry stooge turned EPA head Scott Pruitt, just hours after meeting with the CEO of the Pebble Limited Partnership, directed his staff to withdraw the EPA's determination that it would prevent mining of the Pebble deposit—allowing foreign-owned Northern Dynasty Minerals, the sole remaining partner in the Pebble Limited Partnership (PLP) to move forward with submitting permit applications and a mine development plan to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. 10 days later, the EPA announced it had settled pending lawsuits between the EPA and PLP, which PLP had filed after the EPA's 2014 decision.
The reasoning behind the EPA's decision to permanently protect Bristol Bay from mining development was incredibly straightforward. Based on three years of scientific study, two rounds of public comment and independent, external peer review, the EPA determined what most of us already knew—that the headwaters of the world's greatest salmon fishery was an incredibly stupid place to build a open pit copper, gold and molybdenum mine that would trap 10 billion tons of toxic mining waste behind a several mile-long, 700 foot-high, earthen dam in a region known to experience earthquakes; a dam that would have to be maintained for thousands of years into the future.
The idea that Bristol Bay is the world's greatest salmon fishery isn't hyperbole. Almost half (46%) of the world's salmon harvest each year comes from Bristol Bay. It supports 14,000 jobs and is worth an estimated $1.5 billion annually. And it is the sustaining force behind 4,000 year old native Alaskan cultures that continue rely on Bristol Bay's natural plenty to survive.
In 2014, Canada's Mount Polley mine—which, though much smaller, is very similar to the type of mine that Pebble would come to be—offered the world a glimpse at what future could await Bristol Bay if Pebble were built and its tailing dam were to fail. When Polley's tailings dam burst, it released its toxic tailings slurry into Polley Lake, Hazeltine Creek, Quesnel Lake and Cariboo Creek. It has been characterized as one of the greatest environmental disasters in modern Canadian history—flooding nearby waters and wetlands with arsenic, selenium and other heavy metals. Prior to the disaster, Polley was one of the mines that the Pebble Limited Partnership (PLP) had held out as an example of mines and fisheries co-existing. PLP even hired the same engineering firm that Mount Polley had—a firm that had rebutted the EPA's findings, stating that dams don't fail.
For reasons that Mount Polley and other mining accidents have made abundantly clear, Pebble Mine has always enjoyed virtually no public support. The coalition that has fought Pebble Mine for the last decade is comprised of individuals from all walks of life. In 2013 and 2014, when the EPA requested comments from the public on whether it should use its authority under the Clean Water Act to protect Bristol Bay, over 1.5 million people raised their voices, 85% of which said Pebble Mine was a bad idea. Even other mining companies want nothing to do with Pebble. Former partners in the project bailed years ago. Mining giant Rio Tinto gifted it's 19.1% stake to charity. Anglo American simply walked away from its $541 million investment in the project.
Both the science and the voice of the American public have made it entirely clear that Bristol Bay is the wrong place to build a open pit ore mine that would place a pristine ecosystem, the world's greatest salmon fishery, the jobs of 14,000 Americans and several thousand year-old native cultures in grave and serious peril.
Throughout his career, Pruitt has made it clear that he finds environmental regulations too burdensome for business and the protections they would achieve less important than the creation of wealth that would result from their removal—even when, as is the case with Pebble Mine, that wealth would be generated for foreign interests.
While Attorney General of Oklahoma, Pruitt sued the EPA 14 times, each time seeking to undermine or overturn EPA protections that made it harder for big businesses—from fossil fuel companies to massive poultry farming operations—to pollute Oklahoma's water, air and lands. While in Oklahoma, Pruitt was also the star of a scandal which revealed that he had sent letters to multiple federal agencies, including the EPA, the Department of Interior and the Office of Management and Budget, that were written not by Pruitt himself but by lawyers or lobbyists working for oil and gas companies
Thus far, during his short but unrelenting tenure at the EPA, Pruitt has stayed true to character, working hard to undo EPA protections on clean air and clean water that reduce corporate profits. Included in his efforts is the attempt to undo protections preventing Pebble Mine from being constructed at the headwaters of the world's greatest salmon fishery.
As is required by law, the EPA has opened its proposed withdrawal to comments from the public, each of which is entered into the federal register. The end of the comment period is a mere 4 days away, October 17. As of the time of this writing, some 203,748 Americans have once again spoken up on Pebble Mine. Americans will no doubt once again send loudly and clearly the same message: We don't want Pebble Mine. The question this time around is whether we can expect the EPA to listen.
Make your voice heard again. Speak up by commenting on the EPA's proposal to withdraw its protections for Bristol Bay.