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Menopausal Mother Nature

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E.P.A. Waste Ban Blocks Pebble Mine Project in Alaska

E.P.A. Waste Ban Blocks Pebble Mine Project in Alaska

The move to ban disposal of mining wastes near the site of the proposed Pebble mine, made under the Clean Water Act, protects a valuable salmon fishery.

The Biden administration on Tuesday moved to protect one of the world’s most valuable wild salmon fisheries, at Bristol Bay in Alaska, by effectively blocking the development of a gold and copper mine there.

The Environmental Protection Agency issued a final determination under the Clean Water Act that bans the disposal of mine waste in part of the bay’s watershed, about 200 miles southwest of Anchorage. Streams in the watershed are crucial breeding grounds for salmon, but the area also contains deposits of precious-metal ores thought to be worth several hundred billion dollars.

A two-decades old proposal to mine those ores, called the Pebble project, has been supported by some Alaskan lawmakers and Native groups for the economic benefits it would bring, but opposed by others, including tribes around the bay and environmentalists who say it would do irreparable harm to the salmon population.

Alannah Hurley, executive director of United Tribes of Bristol Bay, which has long opposed the mine, said the decision “was a real moment of justice for us.”

She said the tribes had long been told that “we just need to fall in line” and that the mine was inevitable. “Thank goodness our tribal leaders did not accept that,” Ms. Hurley said. “We’ll be celebrating this decision for decades to come.”

Michael Regan, the administrator of the E.P.A., said the decision came after an extensive review of scientific and technical research. We’re committed to making science-based decisions within our regulatory authority that will provide durable protections for people and the planet,” Mr. Regan said. “And that’s exactly what we’re doing today.”

The company behind the mine project, Pebble Limited Partnership, called the E.P.A. action unlawful and unprecedented.

“The Biden E.P.A. continues to ignore fair and due process in favor of politics,” John Shively, the company’s chief executive, said in a statement. “This pre-emptive action against Pebble is not supported legally, technically, or environmentally.”

The determination makes good on a campaign promise by President Biden to protect the bay. The sockeye salmon fishery there is the largest in the world, employing about 15,000 people and last year harvesting 60 million fish worth an estimated $350 million. The fishery’s economic benefits also extend beyond Alaska, particularly to Washington State.

In addition, Bristol Bay salmon is the basis for a thriving sport-fishing industry in Alaska and is a traditional subsistence food for many Natives in the region.

Mr. Shively said the company would likely appeal the determination. And there is the possibility that a future presidential administration that favors development of a mine could seek to somehow overturn it.

Determinations like this one, based on the 1972 Clean Water Act, are rare, with only three issued in the past 30 years, Mr. Regan said. This one, he said. was based on “very solid science.”

“Obviously, a final determination may be challenged in a federal court and we can’t predict what future administrations may or may not do,” he said. “But what we can assure everyone of is that there is a very solid record here.”

Machinery at the proposed mine site in 2007. The project called for a mine from which tens of millions of tons of rock ore would be removed annually.Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times, via Getty Images

The final determination was little changed from a “recommended” determination submitted in December. In that, the agency said the Bristol Bay watershed, including streams that the salmon use for spawning, was a “significant resource of global conservation value.”

The agency said that disposal of material from construction and operation of the mine would destroy 100 miles of streams and more than 2,100 acres of wetlands. It said an earlier Environmental Impact Statement, prepared during the Trump administration, which found that these losses would be inconsequential to fish populations, “did not represent an accurate and thorough assessment of likely impacts.”

The action is one of several recent moves by the Biden administration to protect environmentally sensitive lands from commercial interests.

Last week, the administration moved to establish a 20-year moratorium on mining near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in Minnesota, effectively blocking a long-disputed proposal for a copper and nickel mine. And the administration reinstated protections in the Tongass National Forest in southeastern Alaska, overturning a Trump administration decision that would have allowed logging there.

Since it was first proposed in the early 2000s, the Pebble mine project has had a roller-coaster existence, its prospects lurching from bright to bleak over the years.

In the late 2000s it gained support from Alaska’s governor at the time, Sarah Palin, a pro-development Republican. But the E.P.A. in the Obama administration moved to block the mine in 2014, citing the Clean Water Act and the risks to the salmon fishery.

The agency under President Trump then reversed the Obama-era ruling, giving the project new life. Late in the Trump administration, however, after opposition from some Republicans, including the president’s son Donald Trump Jr., an avid sport fisherman, the United States Army Corps of Engineers denied the project a critical permit.

The Pebble partnership has appealed the corps’ decision. Radhika Fox, the assistant E.P.A. administrator for water, said that if the company were to succeed in the appeal, the Corps still could not approve the project, given the E.P.A. determination, unless it were somehow changed and the new proposal “does not have the similar adverse effects of this proposal.”

Senator Maria Cantwell, Democrat of Washington, one of the first lawmakers to oppose the project, said she was “ecstatic” about the E.P.A. action. Washington State residents hold about a quarter of the commercial permits to fish for Bristol Bay sockeye, and much of the harvest passes through the state’s ports.

“This is such a big economic consequence to salmon and to the Northwest economy and lifestyle,” she said. “This isn’t just an Alaska issue.”

The Pebble proposal calls for an open-pit mine on a square mile of land, eventually dug to a depth of about 1,500 feet. Tens of millions of tons of rock ore would be removed annually and processed to extract gold and copper as well as molybdenum, which is used to strengthen steel in alloys.

The project would also include the construction of a power plant and pipeline for the gas to fuel it, as well as an access road and a port.

In 2020, Pebble executives were recorded saying they expected the project to become much bigger, and operate for much longer, than originally outlined. The executives, who were recorded by members of an environmental advocacy group posing as potential investors, said the mine could operate for 160 years or more beyond the proposed 20 years. And it could quickly double its output after the initial two decades, they said.

The comments eventually led to the resignation of the company’s chief executive at the time, Tom Collier.

The E.P.A. determination is the latest blow to the project. In December, the Conservation Fund, an environmental preservation organization, purchased conservation easements for 44,000 acres of land owned by a Native village corporation near Iliamna Lake, about 20 miles south of the proposed mine site and the area covered by the E.P.A. ruling.

The easements effectively block development and would make construction of an access road more difficult.

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