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EPA extends comment period on watershed protections that would block Pebble Mine

Residents flew in from around the Bristol Bay region to give public comment on the EPA's proposed determination
Corinne Smith
Residents flew in from around the Bristol Bay region to give public comment on the EPA's proposed determination

The Environmental Protection Agency announced last week that it is extending its comment period for proposed restrictions on mining of the Pebble deposit. The comment period was originally set to end in July. Now, it will continue for two more months to Sept. 6.

Representatives with the EPA visited Dillingham and Newhalen earlier this month to hear public testimony on the agency’s proposal to protect waters around the Pebble deposit. It was the first in-person public hearings since the start of the COVID pandemic.

Dozens of residents from around the Bristol Bay region traveled to Dillingham to weigh in.

Robin Samuelsen is a board member of the Bristol Bay Native Corporation. He has fished in the bay for 57 years. Now, he fishes with four grandsons on his boat. Samuelsen urged the EPA to take action to protect salmon runs which support Alaska Native ways of life.

“My family has subsisted in Bristol Bay for thousands of years. Subsistence is the most important fish you can put in front of an individual in Bristol Bay," he said. "We live and die by our fish."

If finalized, the EPA’s determination would implement federal watershed protections for South Fork Koktuli River, North Fork Koktuli River, and Upper Talarik Creek watersheds. It would also pose restrictions on mining waste discharges around the proposed mine site.

Bertha Pavian-Lockuk flew in to testify from Togiak, a community about 67 miles southwest of Dillingham.

“This two minutes, you will not fully get all the detailed information that each person that flew in from each village has. It's not enough time for me, or any of us," she said.

She thanked the EPA representatives for visiting in-person and stressed the importance of healthy salmon runs in her community.

“Our subsistence lifestyle, each and every one in here is carrying on. My children and my grandchildren are still subsisting today. And we are teaching our children, of what we have learned from our parents and grandparents," she said. "It keeps our community members healthy... And we've gone through this COVID, we just we are still going over (it), and subsistence was our only way, only source of food that we were able to survive by.”

In 2014, the Obama administration released a proposed determination for protections, and more than a million people, including tens of thousands of Alaskans, commented in support of the federal protections for Bristol Bay. In 2019, the Trump administration revoked the proposal.

In May, the EPA used its authority under the Clean Water Act to issue a revised proposal that included analysis from multi-year environmental reviews and Pebble’s mining proposal. EPA spokesperson Suzanne Skadowski says the agency found that the mine would negatively affect salmon habitat in the area.

“Basically, within the mine footprint, the fisheries are too sensitive and too important to be doing any any discharges in related to the mine, in that footprint," she said.

But Skadowski says the EPA’s plan would only limit mining of the deposit as proposed by the Pebble Limited Partnership.

“It's very specific to the Pebble deposit and the Pebble Mine to that area, and not to any other development or mining that might be happening in Alaska, it's very specific to their plan," she said.

Many Bristol Bay tribes, fishermen and environmental advocates want to see comprehensive protections and bans on any mining activity near the bay.

Skadowski says the EPA can only restrict digging and dumping that would impact waterways around the Pebble Mine site. But federal authorities could further restrict mining, for example, if Congress passed legislation to create a protected area in Bristol Bay.

During a virtual hearing, interim CEO of Pebble Limited Partnership John Shively opposed EPA restrictions on the mine, citing demand for copper resources.

“Copper is essential to the green economy," Shively said. "This federal administration is attacking not only Pebble but for other mines, how it thinks you're gonna get all the minerals you need in order to do the green economy?”

Shively has served as interim CEO since 2020, when former CEO Tom Collier resigned after secretly recorded comments about close relationships with elected officials and federal regulators were released, known as the “Pebble Tapes.”

Dillingham Mayor Alice Ruby says since the EPA started to deliberate protections in Bristol Bay, the economic value of the commercial fishing industry has only increased. She says the city opposes any mining activity that puts it at risk.

“We're even more committed now to protecting that industry from the huge risk presented by large scale mining in the very waters that assure our industry, our economy and our future," Ruby said.

Bristol Bay is forecasted to see a record-breaking harvest of 75 million sockeye salmon this summer. The commercial fishing industry is estimated at roughly $2 billion in 2019 and 15,000 jobs.

The EPA announced last week that it would extend the comment period on its proposal by another two months. At another public hearing, the state Department of Environmental Conservation spoke in favor of an extension. But mining opponents have said they want this process to wrap up as quickly as possible.

The EPA will accept written comments on the proposed restrictions on mining of the Pebble deposit until September 6. A final determination is expected to be issued before the end of the year.

Corinne Smith is an award-winning reporter and producer who grew up in Oakland, California. She's reported for KFSK in Petersburg, KHNS in Haines, and most recently KBBI in Homer. This is her second season as a fisheries reporter, and now returns as director of the Bristol Bay Fisheries Report.