[This piece has been updated.]
In his short,
chaotic term as president thus far, Donald Trump has has proposed
historically unprecedented cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency, stripped away some regulations enacted by Barack Obama, and signed a gaggle of executive orders. Many of the moves made by Trump's government have far-reaching consequences the administration many not have even considered, including a move
that could jeopardize the world's largest sockeye salmon fishery.
Trump's EPA recently reversed an Obama-era decision to block construction of Pebble Mine, a proposed excavation near Alaska's Bristol Bay, the source of nearly half the world's wild sockeye as well as coho, Chinook, chum, and pink salmon and various other fish species. A coalition of virtually everyone who lives or works around the bay—sport and commercial fishermen, environmental groups, the tourism industry, native tribes and other residents—has fought the mine for over a decade, and now is gearing up for another round of opposition for fear an opened mine could pollute the Bay and threaten the industry. Who doesn't like their salmon with a side of toxic ore waste?
"My people will do whatever it takes to make sure Bristol Bay is protected," says Nelli Williams, director of the Alaska Program for Trout Unlimited, one of the groups opposing the mine. "It's good that people still really care deeply."
The coalition won a major victory in 2014, when the EPA issued a proposed determination for a 404(c) action under the Clean Water Act, which would preemptively prevent the Army Corps of Engineers from issuing a federal discharge permit because the project had "unacceptable adverse effects" on water or habitat.
Prior to the proposed determination, the EPA spent several years studying the site and released a report tallying the potential consequences if the mine were to be realized. Among them would be the destruction of as much as 94 miles of prime salmon streams and over 5,000 acres of inland wetland habitat, putting the livelihoods of thousands of Alaskans who depend on the fishery at "significant risk." At worst, a giant dam that would hold back the toxic mine tailings in the tectonically-active area could rupture, bringing untold catastrophe to the entire bay. At stake, advocates say, are $1.5 billion in annual value from the salmon fishery, 14,000 jobs related to the fishing industry, and the viability of the traditional lifestyle of the native communities that live around the bay.
The new administration, however, moved to quickly settle a lawsuit with the mine company and greenlight the permitting process again. This doesn't mean the mine will be built, but the door is back open. As part of the settlement, the EPA will have to begin the process of withdrawing its proposed determination by early July. Then Northern Dynasty will have 30 months to apply for a permit. They've not yet made a public determination whether or not they will, but in a statement provided from CEO Tom Collier to VICE claimed the mine would bring jobs and development to the region without causing the environmental destruction advocates fear, saying the project "represents the potential for billions of dollars of investment, thousands of long-term, high-wage jobs and the potential for significant economic activity while at the same time providing revenue for local, state, and federal governments." Collier also said the project will be run with "demonstrable environmental protections. Chief among these is protecting the important salmon resource in Bristol Bay."
In the meantime, Williams says, advocates are working hard to keep up pressure on the state level. Opponents of the mine helped convince the Alaska Department of Natural Resources to impose extra restrictions on a permit for exploratory activities at the proposed site, including a $2 million bond to ensure cleanup. Members of the anti-Pebble coalition are also working on preparing a ballot initiative for 2018 that would raise the bar for issuing permits in fish spawning habitats.
"In conversations I've been having, the opposition in-state is stronger than ever," Williams says. "People are ready to weigh in on all fronts and there will be opportunity to do so."
In a state that is usually known for being friendly to extraction industry and development, Pebble Mine has faced an unusual amount of opposition. One 2009 survey found that more than 80 percent of people living in the Bristol Bay area were against the mine. A more recent poll, from 2015, found that 57 percent of Alaskans overall were opposed to it, 34 percent in favor.
"This is an ultimate betrayal of the people of Bristol Bay," says Taryn Kiekow Heimer, senior policy analyst for the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group. "The process was based on politics, completely ignoring both science and the will of the people."
The settlement may have been inevitable as soon as Trump was declared the winner of the 2016 election.
Kiekow Heimer obtained via a Freedom of Information Act request correspondence between an executive from the mining company and the Trump administration in which David Schnare, a member of the EPA transition team, asked Peter Robertson, senior vice president for corporate affairs for Pebble Partnership, for a "specific proposal on what we can and should do."
The dealings are consistent with the administration's focus on stripping environmental protections across the country. EPA head Scott Pruitt has effectively acted as an operative of the extraction industry since he took office, and the government is engaged in numerous other efforts to foul the nation's water, including attempting to withdraw an Obama order to expand protections of streams and wetlands. Investors are taking notice—the stock of Northern Dynasty Minerals, owner of Pebble Partnership, was nearly worthless by the end of last year, but started rising following the election and peaked at four times its previous value in February, and has remained stable at nearly half its peak ever since.
Coalition members say they have little choice but to keep up the fight to protect their watershed. "Our people are lucky to live a traditional lifestyle in our homeland," says Alannah Hurley, executive director of the United Tribes of Bristol Bay, the original petitioners to the EPA to block the permitting process. "We can still hunt and fish and gather like our ancestors. We're fighting for the core of who we are as native people. This is something we do not take lightly."
"Regardless of who the president is, regardless of politics, the people of Bristol Bay stand ready as we have for years to protect the place we call home," Hurley says. "We're expecting 40 million fish to come back to spawn this summer, and we will do whatever it takes to make sure future generations can live our way of life."
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