Court ruling clears path for Bristol Bay Clean Water Act protections

A court ruling on 29 October enables the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to restart a process to protect Alaska's Bristol Bay watershed.

A U.S. federal court ruling on Friday, 29 October will enable the Environmental Protection Agency to restart a process to protect Alaska’s Bristol Bay watershed from plans to develop the Pebble Mine under the federal Clean Water Act.

U.S. District Court Judge Sharon Gleason in Anchorage ruled in response to a recent motion by the Pebble Limited Partnership and state of Alaska, asking the court to set a schedule for the EPA to either withdraw or finalize a 2014 proposal, issued during the administration of former U.S. President Barack Obama, which would restrict mining and waste disposal.

Ruling in favor of the environmental nonprofits Trout Unlimited and SalmonState, which filed as intervenors in the case, Gleason wrote in her order that “neither the retention of jurisdiction pending remand nor the establishment of an administrative timetable by the court is warranted in this case,” remanding the matter to the EPA for action.

SalmonState Executive Director Tim Bristol called on the EPA to “end the threat of the proposed Pebble Mine before the salmon return.”

“The specter of a massive open-pit mine and waste dump has been looming over the biggest, wildest, most-productive sockeye salmon run on the planet for long enough. Pebble threatens livelihoods. It threatens salmon. And it threatens people,” Bristol said. “Now that the courts have put the ball back in the EPA’s court, it’s up to the EPA to listen to its scientists and to Alaskans, to finish the job.”

In 2019, the EPA reversed course, favoring the Pebble Mine backers’ permit application. After current U.S. President Joe Biden was inaugurated in January 2021, the agency swung back toward the position that the watershed needs strict protection under the Clean Water Act.

In October 2021, the Pebble partners and Alaska state officials sought to have the federal court force the EPA to “either withdraw or finalize a decision on the 2014 proposed determination” from the Obama years.

“Recall that the 2014 proposed determination by the EPA was pending for five years before finally being withdrawn in 2019, and now, two years later, the proposed determination is being resurrected," said Ronald Thiessen, the president and CEO of the Pebble partnership’s parent company Northern Dynasty, in a 13 October statement on the court action. "If they decide to proceed with their proposed determination, then we will again pursue a legal challenge, and with the strong administrative record of the overwhelmingly positive final environmental impact statement of 2020, and the proposed determination, which is not supported by an adequate record, we believe we will win. If they decide to abandon this unheralded abuse of power and instead apply a science and fact-based process, free from political interference, then they should uphold the EPA withdrawal.”

Austin Williams, Trout Unlimited’s Alaska legal and policy director said he expected the EPA to move to protect the area.

“Today’s decision gets us back on track to finalizing protections for Bristol Bay’s headwaters and its world-class fisheries,” Williams said. “As the science has shown time and time again, large-scale mining in the Bristol Bay headwaters would be catastrophic to the region’s fisheries, its economy, and its vibrant cultures. We look forward to working with the EPA to finalize these protections that are so critical to so many people.”

Reporting by Kirk Moore

Image courtesy of U.S. Army Corps of Engineers


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