Historic decision ends safeguards for the headwaters of Bristol Bay, Alaska, after 13 years of science and public support

EPA’s Clean Water Act Final Determination 404(c) Prohibits and Restricts Mine Waste Discharge into the Bristol Bay Watershed and Protects Fish, Rivers, and a Way of Life; The movement is celebrated by Alaskans, fishermen, and hunters.

WASHINGTON, DC—Today, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) publicly announced a Clean Water Act 404(c) Final Determination finding that mine waste would harm the Bristol Bay watershed and restricted its discharge into rivers, streams, and wetlands in the North and South Fork of the Koktuli River and Upper Talarik Creek, rivers in the vicinity of the Pebble deposit.

The decision effectively impedes development of the long-proposed Pebble gold-copper mine, which for decades has threatened the world’s most productive wild sockeye salmon routes, Alaska’s strongest Chinook salmon route, and famed fishing industries. sport and commercial fishing in the region.

“This is an incredible day for the Bristol Bay region.” said Nelli Williams, Alaska director for Trout Unlimited. “For more than a decade, the science has remained strong and public support has been unwavering for the protections of the Clean Water Act. An Alaska-sized thank you to the Biden Administration and EPA for listening to Alaskans, tribes, fishermen and hunters, and for doing the right thing for a world-class renewable resource and the people and jobs that depend on it. of the. The work on Bristol Harbor is not finished yet, but today is a milestone to be celebrated.”

“Pebble Mine would destroy massive amounts of water and land in the heart of a wild, pristine and productive landscape. These safeguards are reserved for special places and Bristol Bay fits the bill. While more work remains to be done, with this news we can start working towards a bright future for Bristol Bay without the shadow of the Pebble mine constantly hanging over our heads,” said Brian Kraft, President of Katmai Service Providers and operator of two Bristol Bay fishing lodges. “This sends another very strong message to the Pebble Partnership: your mine is not wanted here; we have better plans for Bristol Bay.”

“The 404(c) Clean Water Act protections have always been a common sense safeguard for Bristol Bay. Today, the people and businesses in Alaska and across the country who stood up for Bristol Bay should take a bow, because their efforts have protected the world’s most important wild salmon streams and the communities that depend on them,” said Chris. Wood, President and CEO of Trout Unlimited. “It is time for Pebble to recognize that it will never have the community or the legal capacity to develop this mine. Now, it is time for us to further strengthen protections for the entire Bristol Bay basin to match the scope of the threat to this special place.”

Today’s news caps a more than 13-year process to protect Bristol Bay from the proposed Pebble mine. Section 404(c) of the Clean Water Act gives EPA the authority to restrict, prohibit, or deny the discharge of mine waste into the waters of a region if it determines that it will have unacceptable adverse impacts on fisheries or water resources. Alaskan tribes, sport fishing groups, and commercial fishermen first petitioned the EPA to act in 2010. After numerous rounds of scientific review and public comment, including support from hundreds of companies and organizations, the proposed protections they were published in 2014, but were never finalized.

In 2019, the EPA, under the Trump administration, attempted to withdraw the proposed 2014 Bristol Bay Determination, a snap decision with no scientific justification and without regard to public comment. Trout Unlimited challenged the EPA’s decision in court, considering it arbitrary and capricious and contrary to the governing norm of the Clean Water Act. In July 2021, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of TU, ​​finding that EPA could withdraw a proposed determination only if the discharge of materials was unlikely to have an “unacceptable adverse effect.”

Following the lawsuit, EPA Administrator Michael Regan vowed to work to protect the fishery. In May 2022, EPA issued a revised Proposed Determination reflecting analysis of new scientific data. More than half a million comments were submitted to the EPA this summer in support of ending the Clean Water Act’s protections. In all, more than four million comments submitted during seven public input periods supported ending 404(c) protections for the Bristol Bay watershed.

The final determination comes just six months after the Bristol Bay region set a new record with 79 million sockeye salmon returning to its rivers, streams and lakes. The 404(c) safeguards add another important layer of protection for the Bristol Bay watershed from the proposed Pebble mine. The Clean Water Act 404 permit for the proposed mine was denied by the Army Corps of Engineers in 2020. In December 2022, the Pedro Bay Corporation finalized an agreement to place 44,000 acres of land in conservation easements, complicating the main proposed road corridor for the Pebble Mine.

Trout Unlimited, the nation’s oldest and largest cold-water fisheries conservation organization, is dedicated to caring for and restoring America’s rivers and streams so our children can experience the joy of native trout and salmon and wild. Across the country, TU brings local, regional, and national grassroots organizations, enduring partnerships, science-backed political strength, and legal firepower on behalf of salmon and trout fisheries, healthy waters, and vibrant communities. In Alaska, we work with athletes to ensure the state’s salmon and trout resources stay healthy well into the future through our local chapters and offices in Anchorage and Juneau.

Katmai Service Providers represents 64 Alaskan fishing, hunting, bear watching and tourism businesses operating in the Bristol Bay region. The group is dedicated to protecting resources through stewardship, promoting public access, fostering cooperation among users, participating in future development planning, promoting safety and education, and improvement of recreational activities in Katmai National Park. Brian Kraft is the president of KSP and the owner of two Southwest Alaska sport fishing lodges, one in Igiugig, Alaska and one near Dillingham, Alaska. https://katmaipark.org/