Victories in clean air and energy politics may be among the Obama Administration’s lasting legacies, but the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency hasn’t been getting much love from rural communities lately. Here in western Colorado coal-mining country, a hand-painted sign reflects the opinion of many local miners: “Frack the EPA and the war on energy!” In Idaho last week, demonstrators illegally dredged a protected stretch of the Salmon River to protest EPA permits for mining in Western watersheds. Since January, Kansas and seven other rural states have passed symbolic measures opposing the EPA’s new power-plant emission standards, and since 2010 Texas has spent millions in taxpayer dollars on more than a dozen (mostly unsuccessful) lawsuits against the agency.
Yet in rural Alaska, where sentiment against federal oversight runs deep, a group of remote residents are actually siding with the EPA. Not only that, they’re joining the agency in fighting a powerful lawsuit filed against it.
That’s the latest news in the saga of Pebble Mine, a massive open-pit copper mine proposed in western Alaska’s Bristol Bay region. Local tribes and commercial fishermen fear the mine could destroy one of the world’s most prolific salmon runs, and in 2010, tribes petitioned the EPA to invoke a seldom-used power under the Clean Water Act to block development. This April, after a federal environmental assessment concluded the mine could indeed harm salmon habitat, the EPA took the first steps to begin using the Clean Water Act to halt the mine.
But Pebble Mine has the potential to dig $300 billion in minerals from an undeveloped part of the state, and despite being on shaky financial ground after a series of major investors yanked their support in the past year, the Pebble Partnership isn’t going down without a fight. They’ve sued the EPA for overstepping its boundaries. Last month, Republican Governor Sean Parnell announced the state will back the lawsuit – hardly surprising given Parnell’s history of stalwart support for resource development.
Now, the 13 tribes that make up the United Tribes of Bristol Bay are throwing their weight behind the EPA. It’s shaping up to be an epic fight. On one side: an embattled federal agency, a grassroots environmental campaign and coalition of Native tribes – the likes of whom don’t exactly have a strong record of being treated fairly by the government. On the other, a pro-business governor up for re-election in a strongly red state and a weakened-but-still-swinging international mining corporation desperate for investors.
Presiding over the case (and deciding whether to pass it off to state courts) will be federal judge Hezekiah Russel Holland, the same judge who oversaw litigation surrounding the Exxon-Valdez oil spill. Holland’s politics lean Republican and he has ties to the oil industry, but he also rejected appeals from Exxon-Mobile after the Valdez disaster as too lenient toward the oil company.
We can only speculate as to how Holland will steer the fate of Pebble Mine, but as the EPA gears up for another costly legal battle, the real question may be: How many attacks can one agency withstand? There are fewer EPA staff now than at any time since 1989, and the agency is so hamstrung by bureaucratic red tape, political partisanship and legal challenges that one has to wonder whether another lawsuit will further weaken the EPA’s ability to enforce on-the-ground protections.
There’s also the question of what this lawsuit really means. As mineral deposits as gargantuan as those left in Bristol Bay become ever scarcer, will the fight to protect one of Alaska’s most naturally abundant places ever really end?
For more HCN Pebble Mine coverage, check out:
- Alaska tribes attempt to block the controversial Pebble Mine
- Stickers, salmon and stocks: Pebble Mine by the numbers
- Final EPA report the latest in a series of blows to Pebble Mine
Krista Langlois is an editorial fellow at High Country News. She tweets @KristaLanglois2.