EPA reverses course, opts to maintain protections for Alaska’s Bristol Bay watershed

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt had previously proposed canceling the protections.

The Bristol Bay region in Alaska is one of the richest salmon fisheries in the world.  (CREDIT: Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
The Bristol Bay region in Alaska is one of the richest salmon fisheries in the world. (CREDIT: Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

In a surprise move, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt announced on Friday that the agency would no longer seek to reverse proposed Obama-era protections for Alaska’s Bristol Bay watershed, dealing a blow to a proposed open-pit gold and copper mine in the area.

The proposed protections were the result of a years long scientific study by the EPA, which concluded in 2014 that the proposed copper and gold Pebble Mine in southwest Alaska would cause “significant and irreversible harm” to the nearby watershed. Bristol Bay supports the largest sockeye salmon run in the world, and produces nearly half of the global sockeye harvest, according to the World Wildlife Fund. If finalized, the protections would place restrictions on the use of waters in the Bristol Bay watershed in southwest Alaska for the disposal of dredged land or mineral deposits created by mining — essentially limiting the size of any potential mining project in the area.

Pruitt announced in July that the EPA was reviewing whether or not to cancel the restrictions at the request of Pebble Limited Partnership, whose subsidiaries own the mineral claims to the Pebble deposit in southwest Alaska. The mine, if constructed, would likely result in the largest open pit ever constructed in North America, measuring up to 6.9 square miles and reaching a depth of more than three-quarters of a mile, according to the EPA.

The EPA received more than a million public comments after proposing to withdraw protections for the area.

“Based on that review, it is my judgment at this time that any mining projects in the region likely pose a risk to the abundant natural resources that exist there,” Pruitt said in a statement on Friday. “Until we know the full extent of that risk, those natural resources and world-class fisheries deserve the utmost protection. Today’s action allows EPA to get the information needed to determine what specific impacts the proposed mining project will have on those critical resources.”

The decision not to reverse the protections signifies one of Pruitt’s most pro-environment actions to date, and stands out in a year of pro-industry action taken by the administrator. The move, however, is not a categorical win for opponents of the mine. Pruitt did not outright block the proposed mine, which has been stalled for years by regulatory issues. Instead, the agency said that the decision “neither deters nor derails the application process of Pebble Limited Partnership’s proposed project.” The agency also decided to leave in place a settlement with Pebble Limited from May that restricts the agency’s ability to limit the scope of the proposed project.