Whatcom fishermen celebrate Pebble Mine announcement

'Huge victory' is two decades in the making
February 8, 2023 at 5:55 a.m.
Michael Jackson stands at Squalicum Harbor, donning anti-Pebble Mine gear. Jackson is a Bellingham-based fisherman and the president of the Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association. He has advocated against the mine for more than a decade.
Michael Jackson stands at Squalicum Harbor, donning anti-Pebble Mine gear. Jackson is a Bellingham-based fisherman and the president of the Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association. He has advocated against the mine for more than a decade. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)

Staff Reporter

After two decades of fighting, lawsuits and environmental challenges, the Environmental Protection Agency has blocked the contentious Pebble Mine project in Bristol Bay. 

The proposed mine, targeting massive gold and copper deposits in Southwest Alaska, was blocked by the EPA last week under rarely used provisions of the Clean Water Act, restricting the discharge of mining materials in waters. 

Concerns that runoff and contamination from mines could impact the local sockeye salmon fishery — the largest sockeye salmon fishery in the world — played a significant role in the EPA’s decision.

Whatcom County fishermen, many of whom have permits to fish in Bristol Bay, celebrated the EPA announcement. 

“There’s no way you can ignore this or call it anything other than a huge victory,” said Michael Jackson, a longtime Bellingham resident and Bristol Bay fisherman. “Bristol Bay is the eighth wonder of the world. There’s nothing else like it on the planet.” 

Jackson is one of 1,855 Bristol Bay permit holders, and has brought his 32-foot gillnet fishing vessel to the bay for sockeye fishing every year for the past 35. As president of the Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association, Jackson has been heavily involved in fighting against the development of the mine. 

The decision, he said, is a victory across the board. 

“What this decision means for me is more economic security,” he said. “But I think that’s not as important as the fact that it protects the habitat forever.”

photo  Michael Jackson holds a slingshot with a rock reading "404c." The 404c represents the Clean Water Act Section 404(c), and Jackson said he feels like David who took out Goliath – the Pebble Mine. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)  

Pete Granger, a seafood industry specialist on the board of the Whatcom Working Waterfront group, estimates there are more than 50 Whatcom residents who own and operate fishing vessels in Bristol Bay waters each year. 

“There’s a number of fishermen here and their families that are dependent on that fishery,” he said. “This is really the best news we’ve received in a long, long time.” 

Last season, the Bristol Bay fishery saw record-breaking salmon runs, with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game reporting more than 79 million fish in 2022. Typical years see an average of 43.6 million salmon per year. 

The 2023 EPA action comes after years of opposition, environmental studies and fines against the group pushing the project. 

The project was initially proposed in 2001, when Canadian company Northern Dynasty Minerals Ltd. acquired the state leases to the Pebble West deposit. Reports the group cut corners during early exploration studies led to significant opposition from fishermen and local tribes, as well as state fines for unpermitted water usage. 

A 2014 EPA assessment concluded “the mining of the Pebble deposit at any of these sizes, even the smallest, could result in significant and unacceptable adverse effects on ecologically important streams, wetlands, lakes and ponds and the fishery areas they support.” 

photo  Fishing vessels line Squalicum Harbor. A large part of the fleet that fishes in Bristol Bay winters in Bellingham. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)  

Jackson worries the protections guaranteed by the EPA and through the Clean Water Act are not enough. 

“There’s a lot of money still in that ground, and a lot of people that want to get that money,” he said. “What we need now is durable, long-term legislative protections. We need this land to be set aside without any possibility at any time, ever, of the minerals being developed.” 

The Pebble Partnership, owned by Northern Dynasty, has already planned legal action and lawsuits to fight the decision. 

“Unfortunately, the Biden EPA continues to ignore fair and due process in favor of politics,” John Shively, the partnership’s chief executive, said in a statement. “This preemptive action against Pebble is not supported legally, technically, or environmentally. As such, the next step will likely be to take legal action to fight this injustice.”

Alaska’s Gov. Mike Dunleavy, a staunch conservative, has also promised legal action against the decision. He called the EPA’s determination “a political decision,” incompatible with Alaskan sovereignty. 

“It’s on state land,” he told Alaska Public Media. “We traded land for this particular mineral find. The whole premise of Alaska as a going concern, as an entity, as a sovereign is that we were to develop our resources. That’s the irony of this whole thing.”

In the days following the EPA's decision, Dunleavy released several news announcements related to the decision, calling on the state to advocate for its interests. 

Granger, who spent almost a decade fishing in Bristol Bay, isn’t surprised by the possibility of impending legal action. 

“It’s amazing how many roadblocks have been put up by the EPA and the courts and various environmental and fishing interests, and they still seem to have ways to keep this idea alive,” he said last week. “[Dunleavy] is pro-mining, and I think he didn’t like the idea that a national organization could call the shots on decisions that he thinks the state of Alaska should make themselves.”  

Despite Dunleavy’s criticism, federal representatives — including recently elected Alaska Rep. Mary Peltola and Washington Rep. Rick Larsen — praised the Biden administration after the announcement came Jan. 31. 

“Bristol Bay, the world’s largest salmon fishery and an iconic part of America’s natural splendor, was always a terrible place for an industrial mine and the threats to clean water that come with it,” Larsen said in a statement. “The administration did the right thing by protecting this pristine area that is an important economic driver for Alaska and the entire Pacific Northwest, where salmon is both a historic part of our culture and supports tens of thousands of jobs.” 

Have a news tip? Email newstips@cascadiadaily.com or Call/Text 360-922-3092



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