The Environmental Protection Agency said it intends to protect Alaska's vibrant Bristol Bay fishing waters against the development of the massive proposed gold and copper Pebble Mine, following through on a campaign promise of President Joe Biden's to kill the project.
The EPA filed a motion in federal court on Thursday announcing its plan to request that a decision by the Trump administration withdrawing an Obama-era block on the mine's development be vacated. If a vacatur is granted, the agency said it would initiate a review under the Clean Water Act, under which the Obama administration had previously deemed the mine unsafe, and begin the administrative process aimed at blocking the mine.
Biden signaled in the final stretch of his campaign that his administration would seek to block the mining project, pointing to the initiative the Obama EPA took against it and promising to "listen to the scientists and experts to protect Bristol Bay."
“The Bristol Bay Watershed is an Alaskan treasure that underscores the critical value of clean water in America,” EPA Administrator Michael Regan said in a statement Thursday. “Today’s announcement reinforces once again EPA’s commitment to making science-based decisions to protect our natural environment. What’s at stake is preventing pollution that would disproportionately impact Alaska Natives, and protecting a sustainable future for the most productive salmon fishery in North America.”
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Environmental and Alaskan native interest groups, including some prominent Republicans such as Donald Trump Jr. and members of Alaska's congressional delegation, have been urging officials for years to block the mine in order to protect the bay and the way of life of those relying on its fisheries.
The Army Corps of Engineers issued an environmental analysis of the proposed mine in July 2020 determining the project “would not be expected to have a measurable effect on fish numbers” in Bristol Bay. The following month, however, it declined to permit Pebble Mine, directing developers to do more to compensate for potential damages due to the Corps's determination that the mine "could have substantial environmental impacts within the unique Bristol Bay watershed."
In November 2020, the Corps rejected permitting for the mine, saying developers' plan “for the discharge of fill material does not comply with Clean Water Act guidelines,” leading it to conclude that the project is "contrary to the public interest.”
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Mike Heatwole, spokesman for the mine's developer, Pebble Limited Partnership, recalled the Corps's initial July 2020 analysis Thursday and said the project would be key if the Biden administration wants to source materials used in renewable energy projects in the United States.
“As the Biden Administration seeks lower carbon emissions for energy production, they should recognize that such change will require significantly more mineral production — notably copper,” Heatwole told the Washington Post. “The Pebble Project remains an important domestic source for the minerals necessary for the administration to reach its green energy goals.”