Biden EPA proposes protections for Alaska’s Bristol Bay

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The Biden administration announced Wednesday it will protect waters in Alaska home to one of the world’s biggest salmon spawning groundsthe culmination of a long-running dispute that pitted Alaska Natives against mining interests.

The proposal from the Environmental Protection Agency is a potentially fatal blow to a plan to mine in the Bristol Bay watershed for gold, copper and other valuable metals.

Bristol Bay, the source of 37.5 million sockeye salmon a year, helps sustain a $2 billion commercial fishing industry as well as a way of life for Alaska Natives, who have vigorously opposed the construction of the Pebble Mine.

The EPA’s action, if finalized, may finally put an end to a decade-long legal and political tussle over the fate of this corner of southern Alaska as President Biden strives to protect a greater share of the nation’s wilderness.

“The Bristol Bay watershed is a shining example of how our nation’s waters are essential to healthy communities, vibrant ecosystems, and a thriving economy,” EPA Administrator Michael Regan said in a statement.

Mike Heatwole, a spokesman for the mine’s sponsor, said in an email that Pebble Limited Partnership is “waiting to see the final details before offering specific comments.”

Using a rarely used authority under the Clean Water Act to protect wetlands from being dumped with waste, agency officials found the proposed mine would destroy 8.5 miles of streams and lead to “unacceptable” injury to the region’s salmon.

The silvery-red fish has been a source of food for southwest Alaska’s Indigenous peoples for generations and today attracts big-spending fishing enthusiasts from around the world.

Alannah Hurley, executive director of United Tribes of Bristol Bay, a consortium of more than two dozen tribal governments, called the EPA’s announcement a “monumental step.”

“Our tribes have been asking for this for the last 12 years,” added Hurley, who is Yup’ik. But she warned the federal government has come close to protecting these waters in the past only to fall short.

“We’ve been here before,” she said.

Under President Barack Obama, the EPA moved to restrict mining in 2014. But it did not finalize the restrictions before he left office in 2017 as the agency battled litigation from the mining company.

At first, the Trump administration cleared the way for the firm to apply for a federal permit to mine. But then, an unlikely alliance of Alaska Natives, environmentalists and anglers — including President Donald Trump’s son Donald Trump Jr. and Fox News host Tucker Carlson — came out in opposition.

Under pressure from members of Trump’s own partythe president’s team ultimately torpedo a key permit during his last months in office.

The Pebble Mine backers argue their hamstrung project would have created 850 direct jobs and generated more than $150 million in state and local taxes a year. They also point to a US Army Corps of Engineers conclusion in 2020 that the mine would have no “measurable effect” on fish populations.

But the current administration’s move to protect this wilderness was long expectedever since Biden vowed to block the Pebble Mine during his run for president.

But with other mining claims made in the watershed, many mine opponents are calling for Congress to pass more sweeping protections for Bristol Bay.

“We’ll be playing whack-a-mole for a long time with the world’s best remaining salmon stronghold until we permanently protect this landscape,” said Chris Wood, head of the conservation group Trout Unlimited.

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