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In D.C., Pebble opponents push for permanent protections of Bristol Bay ahead of EPA determination

2022-5 Tom Tilden Capitol Speaks.jpg
Courtesy of UTBB
Chief Thomas Tilden of the Curyung Tribal Council, a representative of United Tribes of Bristol Bay, speaks at a press conference in Washington, D.C., on May 11, 2022.

The Pebble deposit is a vast store of copper, gold and molybdenum that sits at the headwaters of Bristol Bay.

For almost two decades, activists from around the region and the country have worked to stop the construction of an open-pit mine there. This month, they hope the EPA will take a step closer to long-term protections against the development.

Representatives with the United Tribes of Bristol Bay and Commercial Fishermen for Bristol Bay met with members of Congress and the Environmental Protection Agency in Washington, D.C., last week with a request: To permanently block development of the Pebble deposit under the Clean Water Act.

At a press conference in front of the United States Capitol Building, UTBB representative Thomas Tilden, a chief of the Curyung Tribal Council, said they came to ask the feds to use their authority to protect Bristol Bay’s salmon from the threat posed by the mine.

“Our salmon is just not our salmon," he said. "We are people that live on the land and I believe that we are protectors of that salmon. Because that salmon belongs to America. Fifty percent of the salmon that is in America comes from our waters. Our waters are pristine, plentiful, and that’s what nourishes that salmon so well.”

Tilden and others are pressing so hard for protections in Bristol Bay because the EPA is expected to take the next step in the veto process against Pebble by the end of the month.

Section 404 of the Clean Water Act is the federal law that regulates how the nation’s wetlands and waterways are developed. The EPA can use a provision of that law — Section 404-C — to veto development in those wetlands if it determines it would cause "unacceptable" damage to water supplies, wildlife habitat or recreational areas.

In the next two weeks, the EPA will issue an initial proposal on how to restrict or deny mining of the Pebble deposit. That's called a proposed determination or "preemptive veto." That's followed by a public comment period. Then the EPA’s regional administrator recommends whether to move forward with the veto and the Army Corps and the project applicant have 15 days for corrective action. Finally, the administrator will act on the recommendation and publish it in the Federal Registrar.

The United Tribes of Bristol Bay's deputy director, Delores Larson, said they expect the EPA to release its proposed determination by May 26, and hope for a final determination by the end of the year.

At last week's press conference, California Democratic Rep. Jared Huffman said he joined the Alaska coalition to tell the EPA to block developments like Pebble.

“Administrations can change, politics can change. And so with something as critical to the economy of Alaska, to the way of life of the people in Bristol Bay and Alaska, something as critical as this Bristol Bay watershed, you just can’t afford to leave this to chance," he said. "You’ve got to finish the job.”

A big talking point was the upcoming sockeye salmon season — more than 73 million salmon are expected to return to the bay this summer. Michael Jackson, with the organization Commercial Fishermen for Bristol Bay, said those record runs are reason for the EPA to act.

“Let me tell you how record," he said. "Last year over 66 million fish returned, this year 73.4 million are forecast to return.”

The push for permanent protections isn't new. Bristol Bay Tribes petitioned the EPA to use the Clean Water Act to veto Pebble over a decade ago. The agency under the Obama administration proposed a “preemptive veto” in 2014 to restrict certain mining activities before Pebble’s proposal was on the table. But that veto was never finalized, and the Trump administration withdrew it in 2019. Last fall, the EPA announced that it would harness its authority under the Clean Water Act to restart the process. But in January, the agency said it would revise its proposed determination by the end of May, instead of issuing a recommendation for action. Opponents of the proposed Pebble Mine voiced disappointment, saying the agency was taking a step backward.

Pebble Limited Partnership Spokesperson Mike Heatwole said he doesn’t expect the result of the upcoming proposed determination to be good for Pebble — or other potential mines in the area.

“We're waiting to see primarily what, ultimately, the EPA will roll into that proposed determination. As you know, the devil is always in the details,” he said.

The Army Corps denied Pebble’s federal permit proposal in November of that year. Heatwole said the company is working with the Corps on an appeal of that decision, which it filed in 2021.

Disclosure: Michael Jackson is the president of Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association, which is a financial supporter of KDLG.

Get in touch with the author at izzy@kdlg.org or 907-842-2200.

Izzy Ross is the news director at KDLG, the NPR member station in Dillingham. She reports, edits, and hosts stories from around the Bristol Bay region, and collaborates with other radio stations across the state.
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