Following the EPA’s Determination, Revisit the Battle Over Alaska’s Pebble Mine

February 3, 2023

The Bristol Bay region of southwest Alaska is home to the largest sockeye salmon fishery in the world. 

It’s also home to enormous deposits of copper, gold and molybdenum that have been estimated to be worth hundreds of billions of dollars — and to a years-long, back-and-forth battle over a proposed mine to extract that mineral wealth at Bristol Bay’s headwaters that FRONTLINE examined in the 2012 documentary Alaska Gold.

Following some two decades of controversy, twists and turns, the latest development in that fight took place this week, when the Biden administration’s Environmental Protection Agency, citing its authority under the Clean Water Act, issued a “final determination” that the proposed Pebble mine project would have “unacceptable adverse effects” on what the EPA described as “an area of unparalleled ecological value.” To prevent those effects, the agency’s determination prohibits “certain waters” from being used as disposal sites related to the proposed mine — and also prohibits any future projects from developing the Pebble mineral deposit in a way that would result in “the same or greater levels of aquatic resource loss or streamflow changes.”

“The Bristol Bay watershed is a vital economic driver, providing jobs, sustenance, and significant ecological and cultural value to the region,” EPA Administrator Michael Regan said in an announcement on Jan. 31. “With this action, EPA is advancing its commitment to help protect this one-of-a-kind ecosystem, safeguard an essential Alaskan industry, and preserve the way of life for more than two dozen Alaska Native villages.”

The EPA’s determination was welcomed by many Alaska Native groups and some politicians in the state, including U.S. Rep. Mary Peltola, who said she hoped the EPA’s decision would provide “the people who live and work in Bristol Bay the stability and peace of mind they deserve and the confidence that this incredible salmon run will no longer be threatened.”

It was decried by other Alaska politicians and legislators, including the state’s governor, Mike Dunleavy, who said the determination “sets a dangerous precedent” and usurps the state’s “ability and responsibility to protect its own fishery resources.”

The determination may not be the end of the battle over the proposed mine and could see court challenges.

“This preemptive action against Pebble is not supported legally, technically, or environmentally,” John Shively, CEO of the group behind the proposed mine, Pebble Limited Partnership, said in a Jan. 31 statement. “As such, the next step will likely be to take legal action to fight this injustice.”

Watch Alaska Gold (which is newly available on FRONTLINE’s YouTube channel) to get the backstory on the complex fight over Pebble mine — including what happened when a group of Alaska Native tribes and commercial fishermen in Alaska first petitioned the EPA to intervene. From a team led by producer Kenneth Levis, the documentary probed the fault lines between those who depended on the Bristol Bay fishery for their food and livelihood, some locals who supported the project, environmentalists who warned that the mine could have a severe negative impact and mining companies that argued that mining could coexist with the fishery and would provide enhanced economic opportunities for people in the region. 

“This — I believe this will be the biggest environmental fight of this century for Alaska,” former Alaska State Senator Rick Halford, a Pebble mine opponent, told FRONTLINE in the 2012 documentary.

Alaska Gold is available to stream now in the PBS App, on FRONTLINE’s YouTube channel, and in FRONTLINE’s online collection of more than 300 streaming documentaries.

This story has been updated.

Patrice Taddonio

Patrice Taddonio, Senior Digital Writer, FRONTLINE



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