The EPA vetoes extracting riches from Alaska’s proposed Pebble Mine, rules to protect salmon
An interview with Alannah Hurley, a Yup’ik commercial and subsistence fisher in Dillingham, Alaska, the executive director of the United Tribes of Bristol Bay, a consortium of 15 tribes opposed to Pebble Mine.
On Tuesday, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced that it has vetoed the proposed Pebble Mine in Alaska to protect salmon in the Bristol Bay region. The agency used the authority of the Clean Water Act to prohibit disposal of mine-related waste in the waters of a 309-square-mile area around the proposed mine site at the scale of the current proposal. The action, which follows a recommendation the agency issued in December, is only the third time in 30 years that the EPA has exercised its so-called “veto authority.”
“The Bristol Bay watershed is a vital economic driver, providing jobs, sustenance, and significant ecological and cultural value to the region,” said EPA Administrator Michael Regan. “With this action, EPA is advancing its commitment to help protect this one-of-a-kind ecosystem, safeguard an essential Alaskan industry, and preserve the way of life for more than two dozen Alaska Native villages.”
The proposed Pebble Mine, located in southwest Alaska near Lake Clark National Park and Preserve, would have extracted minerals from one of the largest copper and gold deposits in the world. Developers proposed an open pit mine a mile across and a third-of-a-mile deep; it would have required the construction of roads, pipelines, dammed tailing ponds, a 270-megawatt power plant and a port.
The decision is the latest setback for Northern Dynasty Minerals Ltd., the Canadian company that has sought to mine the area for decades. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers rejected a permit for the project in 2020. And an effort to block a key transportation route to the mine was finalized in December: Working together, land conservation groups and the Pedro Bay Corporation, an Alaska Native corporation, purchased easements that permanently protected 44,000 acres of land owned by the Pedro Bay Corporation, closing off the mine’s preferred proposed route — considered the least harmful by federal regulators — for transporting ore to a port in Cook Inlet.
The project would sit near the headwaters of Bristol Bay, home to the world’s largest commercial sockeye salmon fishery, and is strongly opposed by some tribes, conservation groups and fishers. The Bristol Bay region is the homeland of the Yup’ik, Dena’ina and Alutiiq peoples, who continue to subsistence fish for salmon in the area.
Alannah Hurley — a Yup’ik commercial and subsistence fisher in Dillingham, Alaska — is the executive director of the United Tribes of Bristol Bay, a tribally chartered consortium of 15 tribes opposed to Pebble Mine. Efforts to develop the project ramped up as Hurley was graduating from high school. After graduating from college in New Mexico, she returned home to advocate for permanent protections for the region and its fish, which she has done for the last decade. High Country News caught up with her shortly before the EPA’s final decision was announced to talk about Pebble Mine and the future of the Bristol Bay region.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
High Country News: What is your history with the Pebble Mine project? How does it feel to have been part of this long fight?
Alannah Hurley: For the last 20 years, growing up and becoming an adult in this environment and in this battle for our region and communities — it’s been exhausting. It’s been exhausting for our people. For us to have to worry about our culture, our children and our grandchildren for this long — I think it’s taken a toll on a lot of people in Bristol Bay. We’ve had to put a lot of energy and resources into this battle. We still are. That could have worked towards building our communities or addressing the many different issues that our communities are facing.
On a more positive note, I think the unity that has come out of our region facing this issue together has been really empowering and really powerful for our people.
HCN: What does it mean to you if the EPA recommends the veto?
AH: The relief this will bring for us, for our children, our grandchildren. There’s a lot of work yet to be done, but this threat that we’ve lived in for so long — it would just be monumental for us.
HCN: What would it mean for people in the region? What would it mean for fishers in the region?
AH: I think in terms of economics, the economic engine of the fishery can now move forward without this threat. (We can) really begin to work on how we make sure that our communities benefit from the fishery in ways that we might not be right now. How do we start moving these things that have so much potential for our region in the right direction? And continue that work without that economic uncertainty? It’s going to be an amazing time for us to be able to shift our energy and focus.
HCN: How does it feel that funding is secured for a land conservation agreement that blocks proposed access to the mine site? What does that change mean for you and your work?
AH: I think that is one example of a village corporation and a community really solidifying their commitment to the protection of our lands and waters and their commitment to long term sustainability. We have all of this potential for our village corporations and our tribes to be moving in a proactive manner like that, to be ensuring our lands and waters and our entities are serving our people and region in ways that make sense for us. … I’m just super excited that that’s where our energy now gets to go. We get to move from defense to proactive planning and implementation. Really, it’ll be a really exciting time if we get there.
HCN: Should the veto be recommended, do you see this as a final death blow to the project, or do you anticipate the fight to protect Bristol Bay to continue? If so, what would that look like to you; if not, what is next for you?
AH: In a Call to Protect Bristol Bay, back in 2020, we outlined this more holistic understanding that long-term permanent protections for our region could be accomplished through two potential mechanisms: the first being EPA Clean Water Act action, addressing the Pebble threat. (Tuesday’s veto accomplished this, banning any permit to dump, dredge or fill material in any of the waterways in the area at the scale of the proposed Pebble Mine.)
But because there are so many other mining deposits and active lending claims in the region — and because these systems that manage development in our area do not prioritize salmon habitat or clean water and subsistence for our people — there was a lot of work to be done. That could be addressed in part by potential legislation that would address broader, watershed-wide protection. If the EPA finalizes the recommended determination, that is such an amazing step that deserves recognition and celebration, but it definitely is one piece of a bigger picture of our long-term effort to secure permanent protections for our people.
HCN: What are your hopes for the future of the Bristol Bay region??
AH: My hope — like the hopes of my ancestors, and people and generations before me, our collective hope — is that we can be a model of sustainability and a model for the world of environmental justice. And (that) Indigenous people provide a model to the world of what sustainability could and should look like. … We want to be able to protect our lands and waters into the future, for our future generations and for the people that are to come after us, so they can continue being Yup’ik, Dena’ina and Alutiiq … We have to prioritize the protection of our lands and waters for that to happen.
Victoria Petersen is a freelance journalist living in Anchorage, Alaska. Previously, she was a reporting fellow at The New York Times and a High Country News intern.
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