Pebble Mine: Alaska sides with mining corporation, tribes back EPA


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.

Commercial fishermen and Bristol Bay Native tribes vehemently oppose Pebble Mine, but the state of Alaska has backed the Pebble Partnership in a lawsuit seeking to stop the EPA from stopping the mine. Photo courtesy Flickr user echoforsberg.

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:

Krista Langlois is an editorial fellow at
High Country News. She tweets @KristaLanglois2.

Joseph Tieger
Joseph Tieger Subscriber
Jul 15, 2014 02:16 PM
One aspect of the Pebble Mine that has not been discussed is who pays for the cleanup and restoration if there is a release of mine tailings or other hazardous substances. Under the Superfund law the "owner and operator are liable. Sounds good but the Pebble Partnership that is going operate the mine is a legal entity with only stock ownership by the big investors. The Partnership will have only enough money to open and operate, all other income flows as dividends to the investors. this is the pattern of mine ownership since the S. CT. decided "Bestfoods." If, really when, it is time to pay for a cleanup/restoration/natural resource damages the Partnership will declare bankruptcy. Lots of luck on getting money from the investors almost all of which are not U.S. companies. That leaves the owner of the land- the State of AK. Yes the State can be sued and is liable so it would have to us the money that is gives out to the residents every year and State tax dollars to pay for the response (to Federal standards), pay for the restoration, pay for the natural resource damages to the native Alaskans (but not the non-native fisherman), the U.S. (Departments of Interior & Commerce) and the west coast states that have salmon fisheries based on the fish from Bristol Bay. Oh, in addition AK will have to pay for the natural resource damage assessments and legal fees of all of the above. In reality is the citizens of AK are going to indemnify the Pebble Mine Partners. No, the financial assurance will not be big enough, it has not been for any metal mine so far.
Richard Crow
Richard Crow Subscriber
Jul 15, 2014 02:57 PM
I work at a large gold mine in Colorado. Before mining could start a $170,000,000 cash reclamation bond had to be paid. Reclamation is done as soon as an area is no longer being mined, although I don't think it has to be done until all mining is done. I imagine that the Pebble Mine would also have to pay the cash reclamation bond.
Kirk Hohenberger
Kirk Hohenberger Subscriber
Jul 15, 2014 06:11 PM
Make this whole area a National Monument and end any mineral development.The questions remain, the conflict continues ,always more development and take, less wild and pristine to it all is gone. The locals do not want the mine, choosing sustainability and lifestyle over a few jobs and profits for a short time, amazing, thank you.