Bristol Bay Leaders Meet To Discuss Permanent Protections From Pebble Mine (Update)

Bristol Bay leaders held a press conference on Wednesday to discuss Pebble Mine and the Environmental Protection Agency’s recommendations to implement permanent protections. (FACEBOOK LIVE)

Six area leaders from the Bristol Bay area held a press briefing today to discuss last week’s Environmental Protection Agency’s Proposed Determination recommending permanent protections for the Bristol Bay watershed from the Pebble Mine and other future similar projects.

Among those in attendance:

Bristol Bay Economic Development Corporation board chairman Robin Samuelsen

Bristol Bay Native Association natural resources director Gayla Hoseth

Bristol Bay Native Corporation board chairman Russell Nelson

Commercial Fishermen for Bristol Bay executive director Katherine Carscallen

United Tribes of Bristol Bay (UTBB) board member Tommy Tilden

United Tribes of Bristol Bay executive director Alannah Hurley

Bristol Bay Native Association senior vice president for lands and resources Daniel Cheyette

The panel all reiterated a decade-plus-long fight to prevent the region, home to the world’s largest sockeye salmon runs, from mining interests among the gold and copper deposits upstream from critical salmon habitat. The proposed Pebble Mine’s permit application was rejected by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in November 2020 months after tentatively green lighting a version of the project.

In an opening statement, moderator Cheyette called the EPA’s ruling a “milestone” and “starting point,” but also added, “We still have a long way to go to get to where we all want to be, which (is) a final agency action that adequately and durably protects the region and its fisheries from the threat that Pebble poses.”

Nelson pointed out that all 12 members of the Bristol Bay Native Corporation board opposes the project.

“Our region’s focus is pointed, first and foremost, on salmon,” he said, “and the opportunity salmon provide to support our economy through commercial, sport fishing and our culture through subsistence (fishing). A project like Pebble that would threaten that remarkable resource is unacceptable and has no place in Bristol Bay.”

Tilden, representing United Tribes of Bristol Bay, made a great analogy about the argument from Pebble Partnership that only a small portion of the watershed could be affected by the location of its proposed mine.

“You do not save Mount Denali by just saving the tip of the mountain,” he said. “We save the whole mountain. And that’s what needs to take place here in Bristol Bay. We need to save all of Bristol Bay – the total watershed – from all the way to the north and to the south.”

“We’re talking about a product that’s world-renowned and needs further protection.”

The panel was asked about the EPA’s ruling and if it could be indeed be a permanent protection and not be at the mercy of being overturned by future presidential administrations and their versions of the EPA.

“This has only been used 13 times in the past; it’s a very rarely used authority by the EPA,” Hurley said. “(For) all 13 of those times it’s been used since 1972, every single one has withstood the test of time and not one of them has been overturned. And so I think that speaks to the durability and the strength of EPA action.”

Bristol Bay Economic Development Corporation’s Samuelsen is less optimistic that future EPA administrators will continue to adhere to what could come out of this decsion:

“We will have to attain Congressional action,” he said. “Different Presidents get into office and they have different goals and objectives. They can open a door, and I think what our Bristol Bay community wants to (preserve Bristol Bay) for future generations… We will continue to fight.”

Listen to the full press conference from Facebook Live here.

Update: Here’s the press release from UTBB:

Bristol Bay Leaders call on EPA to finalize comprehensive protections this year

DILLINGHAM, AK –During a press conference today, Bristol Bay leaders called on the Environmental Protection Agency to finalize strong protections for Bristol Bay’s waters, lands, and all they sustain.

Last week, the EPA released a revised “proposed determination (PD)” outlining potential Clean Water Act protections for Bristol Bay. Those protections, if finalized by the agency, would prohibit and restrict mine waste as proposed in Pebble’s 2020 mine plan. Today, Bristol Bay leaders called for comprehensive protections that address the entirety of the Pebble deposit and the threat it poses to the full natural headwaters of three critical subwatersheds: the North Fork Koktuli, South Fork Koktuli, and Upper Talarik Creek.

Bristol Bay residents, Tribes, fishermen and communities have sought permanent protections for the region for more than 20 years, with more than 2 million comments submitted to the EPA in favor of protections since they were formally requested in 2010. EPA’s announcement of a revised Proposed Determination is the latest in the multi-step process to enact Clean Water Act protections, and additional work remains before they can be finalized. The agency is taking public comments on its revised proposed determination through July 5th and will hold public hearings in Dillingham (June 16), Newhalen (June 17) and virtually (June 16) as part of the comment period. 

Bristol Bay leaders also responded to Pebble’s recent request that EPA extend the comment period and delay a decision, noting that it was contradictory to the company’s prior requests for the process to move quickly.

“Forty days is more than enough, and that’s because we have been here so many times,” said CFBB Executive Director Katherine Carscallen. “We have commented on this process. There’s been a million comments gone into EPA on this action already, and we’re prepared to comment again, we’re excited for the opportunity to comment again, but truly our goal is to see this process reach finality and bring this threat to a close once and for all. (Pebble’s) requests for extensions now are counter to past requests they’ve put in. It’s clear that what they do is only aimed at bending the process in their own favor and really has nothing to do with pushing for public participation. …The people of the region have been commenting, have been engaging with EPA for 12 years.” 

Bristol Bay leaders & representatives made the following remarks:

United Tribes of Bristol Bay (UTBB) Executive Director Alannah Hurley:

“This was a great step forward, but the fight to protect Bristol Bay is not over. Pebble remains a threat and as you have heard today from Bristol Bay leadership: our region couldn’t be more united in our call on the EPA that the 404c protections most provide true protections to the headwaters, not just limitations based on past mine plans. …The Tribes have asked for prohibitions of this type of development in the headwaters since they petitioned the EPA back in 2010. And we have not changed that ask over the last 12 years. These restrictions are just a proposal, this is the proposed determination, and we look forward to engaging in EPA’s process to encourage the EPA to think more holistically about the headwaters area.”

Bristol Bay Native Association (BBNA) Natural Resources Director Gayla Hoseth:

“The people of Bristol Bay have been seeking these protections for more than two decades and while this is an important step we need comprehensive protections so that future generations are not left with this threat. …We’ve been here before. Our voices have been heard. We will go through this comment period again. Nothing has changed in ways of our subsistence way of life, our commercial fishing, and how we do things here in the Bristol Bay region. The only thing that is changing is that more salmon are returning to our rivers, and it makes it even more important that we protect our rivers. As you look at the decline of the salmon around other parts of Alaska, it’s really important that we put in these protections now because we share our salmon to Alaska and other parts of the world.”

Bristol Bay Native Corp. (BBNC) Board Chairman Russell Nelson:

“The people of Bristol Bay overwhelmingly oppose Pebble, and they have for decades. Our region’s future focused first and foremost on salmon, and the opportunities that salmon provides to support our economy through commercial, sports fishing, and our culture through subsistence. A project like pebble would threaten this remarkable resource is unacceptable and has no place in Bristol Bay. …Our first and foremost goal is to achieve final action from EPA by the end of the year that eliminates Pebble and its threat to the region, water, and fisheries.”

Commercial Fishermen for Bristol Bay (CFBB) Executive Director Katherine Carscallen:

“As we sit here today, Bristol Bay’s fishing community is preparing for what is predicted to be yet another record breaking run – 75 million wild salmon are predicted to return. It’s clear that Bristol Bay is a bright spot for fisheries around the globe, as it supplies over half the world’s sockeye and supports a $2 billion sustainable economy. There is truly no safe place to store mine waste at the headwaters of Bristol Bay, and EPA’s action must prevent this in any of the critical subwatersheds that support the life of wild salmon and the communities, economies, and ecosystems they sustain. …There’s never been more at stake and without EPA action to protect this essential food source and economic engine, what Bristol Bay, our nation stands to lose would be irreplaceable and unacceptable”

United Tribes of Bristol Bay (UTBB) Board Member Tommy Tilden:

“It is very important that this be protected because it is shared not only by us, but also the nation and internationally. We are talking about a product that is world-renowned and needs further protection. We ask that you continue to make bigger steps to ensure that all of our salmon is saved here in Bristol Bay.”

Bristol Bay Economic Development Corp. (BBEDC) Board Chairman Robin Samuelsen:

“The region stands united, we are against the mine. We support the 404 (c) process, we feel it is very necessary to protect the watershed and the waters of Bristol Bay. EPA needs to finish the Clean Water Act process and finalize these protections by the end of 2022.”