Alaska has for decades been one of the biggest political backgrounds in the fight to save the environment from the ravages of the oil industry, mining and development. The Biden Administration is moving on behalf of the environment and in this instance fighting to protect the way of life for Alaska’s native population.
Excerpted from The New York Times 9.9.2021
WASHINGTON — The Biden administration on Thursday took the first steps that would allow it to begin the process of protecting Alaska’s pristine Bristol Bay, one of the world’s most valuable sockeye salmon fisheries that also sits atop massive copper and gold deposits long coveted by mining companies.
The administration filed a motion in the United States District Court for Alaska to quash a Trump-era decision that had stripped environmental protections for Bristol Bay, about 200 miles southwest of Anchorage. If the court agrees, the administration could begin crafting permanent protections for the area.
Extolling the region as foundational to the way of life for Alaska Natives, a sought-after destination for anglers and the source of half the world’s sockeye salmon, Mr. Biden said, “It is no place for a mine.”
In a statement, the Environmental Protection Agency argued that the administration of President Donald J. Trump acted unlawfully in 2019 when it rejected concerns that a proposed massive gold and copper mine would threaten the fisheries, withdrawing federal protections from Bristol Bay.
Both federal and state agencies found that the proposed Pebble Mine, which would be located in two watersheds that feed fish-spawning rivers, would cause permanent damage. Scientists say it would destroy more than 130 miles of streams, 2,800 acres of wetlands and 130 acres of open water.
The move will have little immediate effect because the Trump administration ultimately denied an essential permit for the project, known as Pebble Mine, in 2020. That happened after President Trump’s son Donald Trump Jr. and the Fox News personality Tucker Carlson, both of whom enjoyed hunting and fishing in the region, joined environmental activists and Native tribes to oppose the mine in an unlikely coalition.
But environmental activists noted that the decision to reject the permit by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is being appealed by the Pebble Limited Partnership, the company seeking to build the mine.
The company wants to dig a pit, more than a mile square and one-third of a mile deep, to obtain the metals, estimated to be worth at least $300 billion. The project would include the construction of a 270-megawatt power plant and 165-mile natural-gas pipeline, as well as an 82-mile road and large dammed ponds for the tailings — some of them toxic. It would also require dredging a port at Iliamna Bay.
At the moment, there is nothing in place to stop a new attempt at a mining project in the region, though the Biden administration’s request to the court is seen as a first step in changing that.
The administration of President Barack Obama concluded in 2014, after a three-year scientific review, that the Pebble Mine project could have “catastrophic” effects, including a “complete loss of fish habitat due to elimination, dewatering, and fragmentation of streams, wetlands, and other aquatic resources” in some parts of Bristol Bay.
Mr. Obama’s E.P.A. issued a proposed determination under a provision of the Clean Water Act that would have acted like a veto and effectively banned mining in the area. But the agency faced several lawsuits from the Pebble Limited Partnership, and when Mr. Trump took office the determination was still not finalized.
In 2019 the Trump administration, which by then had rolled back nearly 100 environmental regulations, withdrew the Obama-era designation altogether and denounced it as “outdated” — citing lawsuits by the Pebble Mine company as one of the significant new developments.