EPA blocks catastrophic mining project in Bristol Bay, Alaska

The US Environmental Protection Agency took a major step toward protecting one of the world’s most important wild salmon fisheries in Bristol Bay, Alaska, by essentially blocking a potentially catastrophic copper and gold mining project.

Under the Clean Water Act, the agency made a final determination to ban the disposal of mine waste in part of the watershed—a breeding ground for salmon and home to Alaska Native communities that have, at least in part, subsisted off the land for generations. Downstream, the largest sockeye salmon fishery in the world is worth more than $2 billion and provides more than 15,000 jobs. Today’s decision recognizes the value of this intact, healthy ecosystem and its critical importance to both wildlife and people.

“This decision recognizes the irreparable harm that a mine like Pebble would cause in the headwaters of globally important salmon habitat, and reflects the expressed will of the people who live in Bristol Bay,” said Steve MacLean, managing director of WWF’s US Arctic program.

Salmon swim in clear water in a shallow pool in Bristol Bay

For more than a decade, the Pebble Mine project, which would have been located in the headwaters of the Kvichak and Nushagak Rivers, two of the eight major rivers that feed Bristol Bay, has threatened the pristine forests, streams, and lakes of this southwest region of Alaska. WWF supporters—650,000 over the course of many years—stepped up to sign petitions aimed at stopping the disastrous mining project.

“Everyone involved in this victory is breathing a sigh of relief today,” MacLean said. “We look forward to working with the communities in Bristol Bay to ensure the economic and environmental sustainability of the region.”

Late last year, the Pedro Bay Corporation, which comprises more than 200 shareholders of Aleut, Yupik, and Athabascan descent and ensures the financial independence of Alaska Natives by securing their corporation’s profitability long-term, allowed the environmental nonprofit The Conservation Fund to purchase development rights on more than 44,000 acres of land as conservation easements. The easements restrict the development of the land and prohibit any right-of-way agreements with the Pebble Mine project in perpetuity. This decision protected not only Alaska Native land, but also the community’s heritage and culture for years to come.

“Pedro Bay Corporation shareholders chose to protect their land to secure salmon for generations to come. This is their land and their wish,” MacLean said. “The EPA decision further empowers Alaska Native organizations to express their desires for their traditional homelands.”