Discover more from The Alaska Memo by Matt Buxton
Day 15: EPA delivers long-awaited veto of Pebble Mine
What ought to be the conclusion of the decades-long fight over the mine was cause for celebration for just about everyone except for Gov. Mike Dunleavy, the mine’s biggest booster in elected office.
Good morning, Alaska! It’s the 15th day of the legislative session.
One big thing in Alaska news today: The EPA has delivered its long-awaited decision effectively shutting down the controversial Pebble Mine by putting into place such strict protections for the pristine Bristol Bay watershed that the mine could never be built. What ought to be the conclusion of the decades-long fight over the mine was cause for celebration for just about everyone except for Gov. Mike Dunleavy, the mine’s biggest booster in elected office who hinted at legal action in his response this morning. Also, the legislative schedule for today.
Current mood: 🎣
EPA delivers long-awaited veto of Pebble Mine
Pebble Mine is dead, at least for now.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency delivered its final determination on the controversial Pebble Mine project this morning, enacting such strict protections for the Bristol Bay watershed and its salmon habitats that it would bar the large-scale mine from being built. The decision comes after a decades-long battle over the mine and was widely hailed by just about everyone other than Gov. Mike Dunleavy, the project’s biggest booster in elected office who hinted at legal challenges to the decision.
The executive summary of the agency’s final determination opens by explaining that the discharges of the mine into the neighboring waterways would have “unacceptable adverse effects” on salmon habitats in the Bristol Bay watershed, which it recognizes as a “globally significant ecological and cultural resource.”
“Bristol Bay is remarkable as one of the last places on Earth with such bountiful and sustainable harvests of wild salmon,” the report explains. “One of the main factors leading to the success of these fisheries is the fact that its diverse aquatic habitats are largely untouched and pristine, unlike the waters that support many other salmon fisheries worldwide.”
The preemptive veto of the project was made under the U.S. Clean Water Act after tribes petitioned the U.S. government for stronger protections for the watershed. Bristol Bay tribes initiaited the process by petitioning the EPA in 2010. The findings specifically focus on the South Fork Koktuli River, North Fork Koktuli River and Upper Talarik Creek watersheds, which drain into the Nushagak and Kvichak Rivers that are two of the largest rivers in the Bristol Bay watershed. The final determination either puts strong restricitons or complete prohibitions from any project that would dump rock or other dredged material into those watersheds.
The announcement was anticipated and was followed by a flurry of celebratory statements by various groups, elected officials and companies that have opposed the mine. Some were wholly enthusiastic about the order while others celebrated the protetions for Pebble Mine, but reiterated their general support for mines.
“Rebuilding our salmon runs and protecting our fish was the number one reason I decided to run for Congress,” said Alaska U.S. Rep. Mary Peltola. “Today, the EPA listened to Alaskans and helped us do just that. Protecting Bristol Bay, and the world’s largest sockeye salmon fishery, has been a bipartisan effort from the very beginning. After decades of regulatory uncertainty, I hope that this ruling gives the people who live and work in Bristol Bay the stability and peace of mind they deserve and the confidence that this incredible salmon run will no longer be threatened.
“EPA’s final determination should mark the end of Pebble, which was already rejected by the agency in 2020 and does not have the access, permits, financing, public support, or disposal sites needed to proceed,” said U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski. “As Senator Stevens once said, it is the ‘wrong mine in the wrong place,’ and does not deserve to move forward—for good reason. To be clear: I oppose Pebble. To be equally clear: I support responsible mining in Alaska, which is a national imperative. This determination must not serve as precedent to target any other project in our state and must be the only time EPA ever uses its veto authority under the Clean Water Act in Alaska.”
"Under President Biden, the EPA has not only restored its commitment to science and law but truly listened to the original stewards and first peoples’ of this land. Ignored by our own state government, our Tribes petitioned the EPA 13 years ago to use its 404(c) authority to protect Bristol Bay, to protect our people,” said Alannah Hurley, executive director of the United Tribes of Bristol Bay. “Today, these Clean Water Act protections provide certainty that Pebble cannot be built in Bristol Bay. On behalf of UTBB, I’d like to say quyana, chin'an, thank you to the EPA and the Biden Administration not just for this decision, but for working throughout this 404(c) process to consult with our Tribes. EPA’s action today helps us build the future where our people can remain Yup'ik, Dena’ina, and Alutiiq for generations to come."
‘Legally indefensible,’ says Dunleavy administration
The lone elected voice wholly critical of the decision comes from Gov. Mike Dunleavy, who has long supported the mine project. He nearly successfully lobbied former President Donald Trump to push through approvals of the mine, an effort that included a visit on Air Force One and passing along letters that appeared to have been largely written by Pebble Mine officials. Trump’s support for the project was short-lived, though, eventually snuffed out by conservative anglers—including Donald Trump Jr.—who have long enjoyed the pristine waters of the Bristol Bay region.
In his statement today, Dunleavy argued Alaska’s state agencies should be in the driver’s seat of the decisions on Pebble Mine.
“The State of Alaska has a responsibility to develop its resources to provide for itself and its people,” said Governor Dunleavy. “Alaska does resource development better than any other place on the planet, and our opportunities to show the world a better way to extract our resources should not be unfairly preempted by the federal Government.”
The response also included statements from Alaska Department of Fish & Game Commissioner Doug Vincent-Lang, Alaska Department of Natural Resources Commissioner John Boyle, Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Jason Brune and Attorney General Treg Taylor. Taylor called the decision “legally indefensible,” which would hint at a likely legal challenge filed by the Dunleavy administration.
In recent years, the Dunleavy administration has secured funding from the Alaska Legislature for “statehood defense” litigation, which has been used in part to sue the federal government on behalf of various development proejcts. The state is increasing its ask to $10 million this year and is seeking to stand up the state’s own field research and hire expert witnesses on such issues. Legislators have been less than thrilled with the effort’s track record and some have appeared skeptical of continuing the funding.
The Midnight Sun Memo by Matt Buxton is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
Daily legislative schedule
The House Community and Regional Affairs Committee is set to take public testimony on HB22, the peace officer/firefighter retirement bill, at 8 a.m.
The Senate Finance Committee has a 9 a.m. meeting to get the “administration response to prior meetings”
House Fisheries meets at 10 a.m. to get a presentation on the Yukon and Kuskokwim fisheries collapse by the Department of Fish and Game
House Transportation has a 1 p.m. meeting to get a facilities overview
Senate Community and Regional Affairs meets at 1:30 to get an overview from the Alaska Municipal League
The House Finance Committee meets at 1:30 to get an overview on the state’s savings accounts from the Department of Revenue
House Health and Social Services meets at 3 p.m. to get an overview of the Department of Family and Community Services
House State Affairs meets at 3 p.m. for hearings on HB 48, the human rights commission annual report, and HB 25, PFD eligibility for uniformed services. They’ll be taking public testimony on both.
Senate Health and Social Services gets an overview of the Department of Health at 3:30 p.m.
Senate State Affairs meets at 3:30 p.m. to hear SB 26, license plates for fallen peace officers and take public testimony