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A toast to these hard-fought efforts that have seen the U.S.A Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Biden’s Administration pass the Final Determination that prohibits the Pebble Mine and safeguarding fisheries, communities, and the economy in Bristol Bay.
Upon finalization, the prohibition and restriction of the discharge of waste from the mines into the wetlands, streams, and rivers in the North and South Forks of river Koktuli and Upper Talarik Creek will take effect.
The above-mentioned are among the soon-to-be heavily affected waterways in case the Pebble mine is built.
The announcement which was made on January 30th marks the commencement of a 40-day comment period open to the public.
We spill the tea in this article and let you see why it was vital for things to take this course.
NOTE: The prohibitions and restrictions are in specific waters and not the entire Bristol Bay waterways.
Developing mines isn’t banned in Alaska, but the position of the proposed Pebble Mine in that location wasn’t sitting well with the population and administration.
Putting up the mine means discharges of fill and dredged material will have unbearable adverse impacts on anadromous fisheries in the Bay’s watershed.
Why did we toast at the beginning of this article?
The Pebble Mine development has been a hot topic for over two decades – quite a long time, and if nothing would have been done to halt it, we are finished as a state.
The final determination came after a keen assessment of studies, scientific information, technical data, and records, and it only applies to particular discharges of fill or dredges matter associated with putting up a mine at the Pebble deposit.
Every other resource development project can proceed unless otherwise stated.
The Bristol Bay watershed in Alaska is a treasure and boasts incomparable ecological value.
Did you know that the salmon diversity here is unbelievable, and the productivity isn’t close to any other place in North America?
The dependable habitats the watershed provides, starting from the headwaters down to the ocean are home to millions of genetically-diverse wild Pacific salmon.
It is the salmon numbers that maintain the whole ecosystem’s productivity, including thousands of other wildlife and fish species.
Salmon resources in the watershed have been a primary support of native cultures in Alaska for millenniums and still supports currently the only remaining salmon-based cultures worldwide.
Largely, the Bristol Bay watershed aquatic habitats and its productive salmon numbers, if left undisturbed will keep creating globally significant cultural and ecological resources.
The aquatic resources, wetlands, and streams in the Bristol Bay watershed provide a foundation for top-tier, economically crucial, sport and commercial salmon fisheries.
Bristol Bay supports the largest Sockeye Salmon runs worldwide, producing half of the Sockeye population.
Sockeye salmon represents the most diverse and abundant population of salmon left in the USA.
Chinook salmon runs in Bristol Bay are also closest to the largest ones in the world as the area supports Chum, Pink, and Coho salmon in abundance.
The watershed doesn’t have hatchery species bred or released in it, making the salmon populations totally self-sustaining and wild.
Remarkably, Bristol Bay is among the last areas on this planet with sustainable and bountiful harvests of wild-bred salmon.
The primary reason leading to successful fish life in the watershed is the diverse aquatic ecosystem that is almost pristine and untouched, unlike most interrupted salmon waters worldwide.
About 50-70% of Sockeye in Bristol Bay and most Pink, Chum, Chinook, and Coho are harvested sustainably in recreational, commercial, and subsistence fisheries prior to their return to natal streams and lakes for spawning.
Hence, the salmon resources boast significant recreational, the economic, cultural, and nutritional value in and beyond the region.
The McKinley Research Group reports over $2.2 billion in the economic value of the salmon resources in the Bristol Bay watershed, including all subsistence.
Commercial salmon fishing in this area generates the highest share, creating over 15,000 jobs.
As a result, the Bay witnessed $2.0 billion in economic benefit as of 2019.
Apart from the environmental and economic value, these diverse fisheries and terrestrial and aquatic resources in the Bristol Bay area, which depend on the complex of pristine wetlands, healthy streams, and other waterways, are unmatched because of the inseparability from cultures of native populations they support.
We’ll cover the wetlands and aquatic resources in the Bristol Bay watershed and their roles in supporting vital recreational, commercial, and subsistence fisheries in depth.
More About the Proposed Pebble Mine
The Pebble Deposit is a massive low-grade mine containing gold, copper, and minerals with molybdenum.
It is strategically positioned in the headwaters of the Bristol Bay waters and underlies sections of the South and North Fork of the Koktuli River and the Upper Talarik Creek waters, which empty into the Kvichak and Nushagak Rivers, two of the biggest rivers in Bristol Bay.
The Northern Dynasty Minerals Limited and the Pebble Limited Partnership commenced their data collection, research, and analysis towards developing a massive mine to operate on a large scale at the Pebble deposit in 2001.
Currently, mining technology is advanced, and water resources have high density, and discharging fill or dredged material into the US waters will have to happen to establish the deposit.
These discharges need a CWA permit as part of section 404 from the USACE- U.S Army Corps of Engineers.
PLP rendered its CWA sc. 404 permit application in December 2017 to USACE with requests to develop the large-scale mine at the deposit.
But, the application triggered the creation of the Environmental Impact Statement EIS that started pursuing the National Environmental Policy Act.
In June 2020, PLP revised their permit application and submitted it as the PLP 2020 Mine Plan to respond to the NEPA/ CWA sc. 404 review.
The proposition in the 2020 PLP Mine Plan was to establish the deposit but be mined on the surface, where 1.3 billion tons of raw ore was to be extracted over two decades.
The project was two have 4 major elements: the mine site in the North and South Fork and the UTC waters (first), the Diamond Point Port (second), the transportation corridor (third), and the fiber optic cable and natural gas pipeline (fourth).
From the proposal, the first element was to be a fully-developed mine area.
Here are some of the proposed structures:
An open pit
A bulk tailings storage facility
A 270-megawatt power plant
Water treatment plants
Water management plants
Milling and processing facilities
The plan states that progress would be in four mine phases: construction, operations/production, closure, and after-closure.
The construction period is 4 years (estimate), with 20 years of production or operation, while closure and reclamation of the site are to take approximately two decades.
Post-closure and its activities like long-term water monitoring and management are to last centuries.
By now, the potential impacts, both direct and indirect from the construction and production of the PLP 2020 Mine Plan on all wetlands, streams, and waters in the mining area have been studied and evaluated properly.
USACE sent out a Notice of availability to listen and keenly go through the proposal on July 24, 2020.
It later issued a Record of Decision on November 20, 2020, denying PLP the permit it earlier applied for on grounds that the Mine Plan wasn’t complying with the CWA sc. 404 guidelines and was going against the interest of the public.
PLP appealed the permit denial on January 19, 2021, and USACE accepted it on February 25, 2021, when the review began.
The appeal still addressed the initial permit application without any new or potential plans for the Pebble deposit.
The Proposed Determination of 2014
For over 10 years, most Native Alaskan communities in Bristol Bay and its watershed; commercial, recreational, and subsistence fishing interests, active conservation groups, and more like-minded people raised their concerns about the potential impacts of the proposed large-scale mine on the area’s environmentally, socially, and economically crucial angling areas.
May 2010 saw these groups requesting the EPA to use the CWA sc. 404 stipulations to protect the area’s fishing spots.
EPA started an ecological risk research and assessment in February 2011 before proceeding to other steps.
The study took 3 years, and in January 2014, there were 2 rounds for the public to comment on and for the independent board and external peer to review the issue.
Later, EPA released findings of its assessment of potential impacts on the Bristol Bay salmon ecosystems if the mine was to be put up.
In July 2014, EPA Region 10 released a proposed determination to restrict the public from using some waters on the North and South Fort and the UTC watershed after keenly considering available information.
In November 2014, PLP brought litigation and the review process of the EPA Region 10 as per the CWA sc. 404 was halted.
There was a settlement in May 2017 that saw PLP and EPA resolve their case, and one of the conditions to solve this was for EPA Region 10 to start the process of withdrawing the proposed determination of 2014.
In August 2019, EPA withdrew the determination, but fishing, tribal, conservation, and environmental groups challenged the withdrawal a month later.
EPA Region 10 on November 23, 2021, published a notice in the Federal Register to extend the time required to 31st May 2022 to allow enough time to go through all the available information before deciding the next step of the review process.
The notice stated the EPA’s plan to consider all available information since the issuance of the proposed determination of 2014 by the EPA.
The Proposed Determination of 2022
EPA Region 10 forked deeper and considered tons of information since issuing the first determination before determining the right steps to follow in the CWA sc. 404 process.
Over 670,000 comments from the public were submitted to EPA Region 10 responding to the proposed determination of 2014.
The permit application by PLP as per CWA sc. 404, including the reviewed PLP 2020 Mine Plan.
Findings after evaluation of the 2020 PLP Mine Plan by USACE’s FEIS, including the technical support data, appendices, and references.
The USACE, U.S Fish and Wildlife Service, and EPA 12-week coordination process results to evaluate the proposed project by PLP.
The ROD by USACE denying PLP sc.404 permit application, including the supporting documents.
NDM Pebble Project Assessment of September 9, 2021.
Updated data on all the fishery resources located in Bristol Bay
New technical and scientific publications.
In January 2022, EPA Region 10 alerted the Alaska Department of Natural Resources, USACE, Pebble East Claims Corporation, USACE, Chuchuna Minerals, and the Pebble West Claims Corporation a revised and updated proposed determinate as per the regulatory procedures since, based on reviews from available information, it still believed discharging fill material from mining at the Pebble deposit had unacceptable hazardous effects on vital fisheries.
EPA Region 10 gave the above-mentioned parties a chance to consult and submit details for the records to show that there weren’t going to be unacceptable adverse effects from releasing discharge from the Pebble deposit.
And strict measures would be taken to curb any occurrences like these in vital fisheries.
Chuchuna Minerals, PLP, and ADNR issued response letters giving legal, scientific, technical, and policy arguments.
EPA individually met with these parties, and according to the details given to the agency, the three didn’t satisfy the EPA Region 10 requirements that demanded a stand that no adverse effects would happen after the fill material associated with the pebble deposit mine was discharged.
EPA Region 10 found the next relevant step was to publish a revised 2020 proposed determination and a notice was published in May 2022.
The notice began an open comment period for the public that ended on July 5th, 2022.
Before that, 3 public hearings were held on the 16th and 17th of June 2022 by EPA Region 10: 2 were in-person hearings in the Iliamna and Dillingham areas of Bristol Bay Region and 1virtual hearing.
The three meetings saw over 186 people participating, and 111 gave their statements orally.
EPA Region 10 was requested to extend the comment period as some groups sent theirs in for the extension not to be granted but after considering both requests, a good cause landed on the extension side that was moved to September 6th, 2022.
Over 582,000 written comments were received by the EPA during the comment period and Region 10 requested another extension to evaluate all these comments.
The process was smooth, and EPA Region 10 completed the review of the administrative record extensively, including the public comments.
The Regional Administrator found out that discharging fill or dredged material as a result of the development of the Pebble deposit would lead to unacceptable extreme effects on fishery areas and put together a determination to that effect, which was sent to the EPA Assistant Administrator for Water for reviewing and the final action on December 1, 2022.
The Final Determination
As indicated on the ROD and FEIS, construction and production of the proposed mine as per the 2020 Mine Plan would lead to the release of discharge of fill and dredged material into the USA waters, including wetlands, rivers, streams, and ponds near the Pebble deposit and adjacent watersheds.
Some direct impacts resulting from the placement of mine fill in aquatic ecosystems, and some secondary results of these discharges would lead to the loss of these habitats, which are crucial to anadromous fish.
The losses would be because of the construction and production of different components on the mine site, like the pyritic TSF, bulk TSF, open pit, milling and processing facilities, power plant, WMPs, WTPs, and supporting infrastructure.
As per the ROD and FEIS, there would be a loss of 99.7 miles or 160.5 kilometers of stream habitat, which represents about 8.5 miles of 13.7 kilometers of fish streams and 91 miles of 147 kilometers of other streams supporting these anadromous waters.
Such discharges would lead to the loss of about 2108 acres or 8.5 kilometers squared of wetland and sections of the South and North Fork watersheds supporting anadromous streams.
Other secondary impacts of the proposed mine at the Pebble deposit would affect anadromous fisheries downstream of the site.
Streams, wetlands, and other water resources would degrade and deprive the fish habitats downstream of groundwater inputs, nutrients, and ecological subsidies because upstream water resources are already lost.
Another secondary impact of discharging these materials after constructing and operating the mine is stream flow alterations as a result of water holding, withdrawal, release, storage, and treatment at the site.
Such alterations will adversely affect about 29 miles or 46.7 kilometers of fish streams down the mine because of more than 20% changes in the average streamflow each month.
Besides, there will be primary changes in the ecosystem structure and functioning and will reduce the quality and extent of the fish habitat.
We will witness impairment of the functioning of these habitats that would leave permanent effects.
Alaska has numerous wetlands and streams supporting salmon.
Even with them in plenty, ponds, lakes, wetlands, individual streams, and stream reaches play a vital role in supporting salmon populations and preserving the diversity of wild salmon in Bristol Bay.
The region has a wide array of features in the watershed and sustains different aquatic habitats supporting many salmon populations with asynchronous runs.
Population differences are evident in the genetic diversity of this species and their adaptation to conditions in the bay’s watershed, which offer stability to the entire system.
The impacts of the proposed mine are primarily in the North and South Fork watersheds.
Both are part of the River Nushagak watershed.
The recent analysis focused on the River Nushagak watershed emphasizes the vital role streams, lakes, ponds, and wetlands across the whole watershed play in steadying the river’s productive Chinook and Sockeye salmon fisheries.
Also, the Koktuli River and UTC have been reported to support some of the genetically distinct Sockeye salmon populations.
Losing the salmon habitats and diversity associated with them in the North, South Fork, and UTC watersheds will erode the complexity and bio-complexity habitat that aids in buffering these numbers from extreme and sudden changes in quantity thus maintaining their productivity.
Apart from supporting distinct salmon species, these wetlands and streams draining the deposit region are primary habitats for thousands of other fish species, organic matter, invertebrates, water supply, and more resources to waters downstream.
This is specifically true in some dendritic stream waters like the South Fork and North Fork of the Koktuli and the UTC water systems, which boast high water densities in the headwater streams. As result, headwater wetlands and streams play a crucial role in preserving diverse and abundant anadromous aquatic populations by offering vital fish habitats and supplying energy and resources required to support these fishes in downstream network habitats.
EPA foresaw the discharge of material from the construction and operation of the mine leading to hazardous impacts on fish areas in the North and South Fork watersheds. There will be an irreversible loss of fish habitats, including their spawning and breeding spots.
The state and world would lose Chinook and Juvenile Coho Salmon habitats permanently.
Also, we will witness the degradation and damage of other spawning and breeding habitats of Sockeye, Chinook, and Coho salmon downstream because of losing ecological subsidies that would have been provided by ruined streams, wetlands, and waters.
Briefly on the Prohibitions and Restrictions in the Pebble Deposit Final Determination
The final determination has two parts: the prohibition and the restriction.
We break it down here to highlight what was discussed and finalized under the two parts.
EPA Assistant Administrator for water said that the discharge of fill material from the construction and operation of the mine as proposed by the PLP 2020 Mine Plan at the Bristol Bay Pebble deposit will lead to unacceptable dangerous effects on anadromous fishing areas in the North and South Forks of the Koktuli River watersheds.
From the information on the PLP CWA sc. 404 permit application, FEIS, and ROD these harmful discharges will lead to streamflow changes and loss of aquatic resources like below: The loss of about 8.5 miles or 13.7 kilometers of anadromous streams.
The loss of 91 miles or 147 kilometers of other streams supporting documented streams above.
The loss of 2108 acres or 8.5 kilometers squared of wetlands and waters supporting fish streams.
Adverse results on 29 more miles or 46.7 kilometers of fish streams from <20% changes in the average streamflow each month.
EPA also says that this discharge anywhere in the deposit mine or within the South and North Fork watersheds will lead to similar or greater loss or negative effects on streamflow changes and other dangerous effects on fishery areas here since the waste will go into some aquatic waters as part of the Mine Plan.
The Assistant Administrator for water further prohibits the specification of water in the USA as disposal areas for discharging fill material.
The Final Determination stipulations restrict the size of mining proposals in the future within the North Fork and South Fork Koktuli River and the Upper Talarik Creek watersheds if they lead to unacceptable adverse effects on the fish habitat and water quality.
The Bristol Bay Locals’ Thoughts on the Pebble Deposit and Outcome of the Final Determination
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency towards the end of January announced it vetoed the proposed Pebble Deposit in Bristol Bay, Alaska to protect and preserve the salmon species in this region.
The agency followed the stipulations in the Clean Water Act (CWA)to prohibit the disposal of waste from the mine in waters covering 309 square miles within the proposed mining site. This has seen the EPA exercising its veto powers for the third time only in 30 years.
The people of Bristol agree that the bay’s watershed is a crucial economic driver as it provides sustenance, jobs, and significant cultural and ecological value to the area.
The action by EPA is to advance its sole commitment to aid in the protection of a one-of-a-kind ecosystem.
It aims at safeguarding a vital Alaskan industry and protecting and preserving Alaskan natives’ way of life.
The Proposed mine deposit in southwest Alaska close to Lake Clark Preserve and National Reserve was going to extract minerals from the largest gold and copper deposits in the state and worldwide.
From the locals’ perspective, a glance at the development and what it entails would sound good until you keenly assess the proposal.
The developers were to put up an open pit mine covering a mile across with a depth of 1/3 of a mile, but this would need them to construct pipelines and roads, dam the tailing ponds, and create a 270-megawatt power plant and port.
Sure! This sounds pretty cool.
The company in question is Northern Dynasty, whose headquarters are in Canada.
Its efforts to go after the area has lasted decades, and locals say that if the same effort was put towards the area’s preservation for this long, Alaska would be the Maldives of this and the next years. A resident added that the Pedro Bay Corporation, which is an Alaska Native Cooperation and local land conservation groups bought easements that saw permanent protection of 44,000 acres of land belonging to Pedro Bay Corporation.
The purchase closed the deposit’s preferred route for ferrying ore to Cook Inlet Port, which was considered the least dangerous by the federal regulators.
The project was to sit close to the Bristol Bay headwaters – the home of the biggest commercial Sockeye fishery in the world but this was strongly opposed and rejected by some conservation groups, tribes, and fishers.
Bristol Bay is the native home of the Alutiiq, Dena’ina, and Yup’ik people who do subsistence fishing for salmon in this region.
Alannah Hurley is a Yup’ik subsistence and commercial angler in Dillingham and works at the United Tribes of Bristol Bay as the executive director.
The organization is one of the tribally chartered consortiums consisting of 15 tribes that opposed the Pebble Mine in the bay.
Efforts to establish the mine gassed up as she was completing high school.
She went to college in New Mexico and upon graduating, returned to Alaska to push for permanent protection of the area and fish there.
Hurley has been doing this for more than 10 years, and she shares about the mine and Bristol Bay’s future.
She says it was exhausting growing up for the last decade in an environment where inconsiderate developers battled for the communities and region.
Not only does she feel this, but she shares the plight of most of the residents there as they lived worrying about their culture and well-being.
A lot of resources and energy have gone into this fight, and they aren’t stopping soon.
Hurley says that the unity shown by the region while battling this issue as one has been empowering to them and other people looking up to their efforts.
The Veto has somewhat brought relief to the area’s residents but there is still a ton of work to do.
From an indigenous angle, it will give the people a sigh of hope, peace, and relief knowing that this dark cloud isn’t hovering above their heads.
It is a new day for the locals as they can focus on other areas.
The economic wheel of angling will steer forward without this threat, and organizations can work on ways of ensuring the communities in Bristol Bay and Alaska benefit more from fisheries here in the right manner and operations.
Funding has been set aside to cater to a land conservation agreement blocking proposed access to the site, and it means a lot to Hurley and her work.
The village corporation that pushed for this and the community work hand in hand to solidify commitment to the preservation of the local land, water, and long-term sustainability.
The people of Bristol Bay have the potential for their tribes and village corporations to be proactive even in the future towards ensuring the protection of entities serving its people and the area.
During the open comment session in 2020 by EPA Region 10, Hurley and like-minded people outlined their grievances in a more holistic approach that permanent protections for the long-term can be accomplished through the EPA CWA sc. 404 that addresses the Pebble deposit threat.
Luckily, the Veto accomplished this mechanism by banning all permits to dredge, dump or fill waste material in any waterways around the deposit.
But, there are other mining deposits in the region.
Sadly, systems managing developments in Bristol Bay don’t prioritize clean water, subsistence, or salmon habitats for the people, hence why she earlier said there are still tons to be done.
After the final determination was passed, Bristol Bay, Alaska, and its people have become models of sustainability and environmental justice in the world.
This process has demonstrated what and how sustainability should look like without disrespecting indigenous people, their rights, their leadership role in sustainability, and their culture.
What Fishing Organizations Are Saying about the Pebble Deposit and the Proposed Mine
The American Sportfishing Association is among the organizations that publicly opposed the construction of the proposed mine at the Pebble deposit over the years because clear and substantial risks are posed to highly vital recreational waters.
Bristol Bay is among the regions where ASA has fought had to push for EPA to do the right thing because the area is an iconic angling location with a thriving local economy pivoted around the salmon wonder of the area.
The organization’s involvement in fisheries with mining-related cases has grown with time forcing it to create a policy position describing scenarios that will determine its participation. Fortunately, this one ticked many if not all the boxes.
ASA strongly believes that Bristol Bay has special economic and cultural importance and warrants special considerations when a potentially harmful thing like large-scale mining operations are proposed on it.
This region boasts the largest sockeye salmon fishery in the world and the biggest King Salmon runs of all time because the freshwater salmon habitats in the bay aren’t touched by developments, making it the most valuable salmon fishery with wild populations on this planet.
The salmon fishery in this Bay is a versatile economic powerhouse, and worth billions annually for commercial and recreational industries and should be protected.
We can also see ASA’s efforts in the Yellowstone National Park issue and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness matter.
The organization and other parties in the recreational fishing department have inspired and engaged a new force of anglers and as a result of collaborative efforts, sportfishing records a 20% increase in active participation in the past decade.
ASA was against heavy metal leeching, mine drainage, and major water withdrawals as they have negative results and would be the same if the proposed mine at the Pebble deposit would be constructed.
The organization emphasizes that it doesn’t oppose the entire mining industry since it understands the importance of mining and its role in the American economy and respects business operations that follow the laws in the mining industry.
Besides offering jobs for many in the nation, the cultural significance isn’t something to ignore, especially for American families living in rural areas.
ASA however strives to ensure other future mining projects don’t jeopardize the growth and health of sportfishing.
It opposes legislations and policies facilitating the construction of mines that will be hazardous to any USA fishery known to be culturally, economically, or ecologically important to the recreational fishing industry and the angling community in general.
ASA and other participants generated thousands of worrying emails through Keep America Fishing to primary decision-makers like the President, the two chambers of Congress, the EPA, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and we can agree that their efforts yielded.
Discharges of waste from the construction and operation of the proposed mine as per the PLP 2020 Mine Plan would lead to the permanent loss of 8.5 miles of streams that harbor anadromous fish, 91 miles of extra streams supporting this water life, and 2108 acres of wetlands in the North and South Fork of the Koktuli and UTC.
The discharge would lead to streamflow alterations that will negatively affect 29 miles of other supportive streams towards the downstream regions of the mining site.
Overall, there will be permanent loss or damage of aquatic resources that play a vital role in the salmon population in the watersheds in question.
To prevent the occurrence of adverse effects from the release of mine waste from the Pebble Deposit, the final determination had to be issued and effected.
The determination prohibits the specification of particular waters of the USA in the North and South Fork watersheds to be used as disposal zones for the discharge of fill material from the construction and operations of the proposed mine.
It includes any future proposals of constructing and operating mines to develop this Pebble deposit as the waste released into the US waters would lead to massive aquatic resource losses or adverse changes in streamflow.
EPA has promised to keenly evaluate any future proposals to release fill material in the region because the area boasts unique and immense social, cultural, ecological, and economic value in the area, including fishing areas in the North and South Fork and the UTC watersheds.
For clarity, the Assistant Administrator of Water said the agency made its decision going by the Clean Water Act stipulation to prohibit the PLP permit issuance.
However, failure to grant the Pebble appeal doesn’t mean that all other future projects are banned.
The process and actions were to give a roadmap for such types of projects that can create unacceptable adverse effects but don’t apply to the remaining projects or future ones that could be potential considerations.
Also, it doesn’t apply to other resource developments past the Pebble Mine in Alaska.
We hope that this shines a ray of hope on the locals of Bristol Bay, Alaska, and other parts of the world being threatened by such mining activities that affect aquatic resources, which are primary sources of cultural, economic, ecological, and subsistence usefulness.