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Tina Casey headshot

How U.S. Businesses Helped Halt the Pebble Mine Project — And What's Next for Alaska's Bristol Bay

By Tina Casey
Boat on Bristol Bay Alaska - Pebble Mine will not go forward

Alaska's Bristol Bay.

Pollution continues to besiege the oceans of the world, but signs of a better future are beginning to emerge. One major milestone occurred last month when the notorious Pebble Mine project in Alaska finally lurched to a halt — for now, at least.

U.S. businesses raise awareness about the Pebble Mine project

The Pebble Mine project would have been located at a site about 230 miles southwest of Anchorage. The prize was substantial: the Pebble deposit, first discovered in 1987, has been described as the world's largest deposit of copper porphyry along with molybdenum and gold.

The environmental impact would have been even more consequential. In order to operate economically, the mine was projected to sprawl over two miles wide and reach thousands of feet into the earth, with billions of tons of rock to be excavated. It would require the construction of massive dams to fill two artificial lakes, along with a new deepwater port as well as new roads, water supply and power generation.

Nevertheless, in 2001 the company Northern Dynasty Minerals Ltd acquired the right to develop the site. Other leading companies also got involved in the project. In 2007 Rio Tinto acquired a 19.1 percent stake in Northern Dynasty, which also formed a 50-50 joint venture with the U.K. firm Anglo American to develop the mine.

Trouble soon followed. Local fishery stakeholders and environmental organizations brought the project to the attention of the public, with an assist from Tiffany & Co. among scores of other leading U.S. businesses.

The publicity paid off. Anglo American pulled out of the project in 2013 despite having to take a $300 million penalty for doing so. Rio Tinto also detached its name from the project. The company divested its stake in Northern Dynasty in 2014, just a few weeks after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced it intended to use its Clean Water Act authority to protect Alaska's Bristol Bay.

ESG investing joins forces with tribal rights

Investor activism also had an impact. In 2011, the Environmental News Service reported that 29 investor organizations collectively asked the EPA to perform a Clean Water Act review on the Pebble Mine project. The group held a total of 13 million shares in Anglo American, topped by Trillium Asset Management Corp. and Calvert.

"This proposed mine has potentially devastating consequences for the people and the ecosystem of Bristol Bay," Trillium vice president Jonas Kron told the Environmental News Service.

"Ecosystem degradation is of serious concern to investors," added Calvert director of shareholder advocacy Stu Dalheim, who said "responsible resource development is critical to all economic, environmental and cultural stakeholders."

The corporate ESG (environmental, social and governance) movement also came in response to indigenous efforts to stop the mine. In 2010, Alaska Native Tribes petitioned the EPA to protect Bristol Bay, in concert with recreational and commercial fishers, chefs and other stakeholders. In 2017 the United Tribes of Bristol Bay also joined together with the Southeast Alaska Indigenous Transboundary Commission in a first-of-its kind coalition, aimed at raising the pressure on Pebble and other projects.

Pebble Mine is finally over, for now

All that hard work paid off last month when the EPA issued a Final Determination on Bristol Bay under section 404(c) of the Clean Water Act.

"After reviewing the extensive scientific and technical record spanning two decades, EPA has determined that specific discharges associated with developing the Pebble deposit will have unacceptable and adverse effects on certain salmon fishery areas in the Bristol Bay watershed," said the EPA's assistant administrator for water, Radhika Fox, in a press statement dated Jan. 31.

Fox cautioned that the decision does not apply to other projects in Alaska. Nevertheless, it is a significant win for tribal rights and ESG principles that prioritize sustainable economic development and community well-being.

"The Bristol Bay watershed is a vital economic driver, providing jobs, sustenance, and significant ecological and cultural value to the region," explained EPA Administrator Michael Regan.

Regan also emphasized that preserving the "the way of life for more than two dozen Alaska Native villages" was a key factor in the decision, along with ecosystem protection and the sustainment of an important industry in Alaska.

What comes next for Bristol Bay

The Final Determination effectively brings Pebble Mine to a halt by prohibiting the operation from using the South Fork Koktuli River and North Fork Koktuli River watersheds to dispose of dredged or fill material. The same restriction applies to any other future mining operation at the site with an equal or greater impact than Pebble. The Upper Talarik Creek watershed is also protected from future use.

In its press announcement, the EPA also made a strong case against any further pursuit of the matter by Northern Dynasty or any other stakeholder. The agency emphasized that has a long history of exercising its authority under Section 404(c). The Clean Water Act became law in 1972, and the EPA has only invoked Section 404(c) 14 times since then, with only three of those instances occurring within the past 30 years.

The EPA also took note of the painstaking, years-long review process that engaged stakeholders from all sides, arguing that "it is not reasonable or necessary to engage in additional multi-year National Environmental Policy Act or Clean Water Act Section 404 processes for future proposals to develop the Pebble deposit involving discharges of dredged or fill material that would result in adverse effects that EPA has already determined are unacceptable in this Final Determination."

The agency emphatically declared: "By acting now, based on an extensive and carefully considered record, EPA promotes regulatory certainty for all stakeholders and avoids unnecessary expenditure of additional resources by all stakeholders."

The EPA is right to be concerned that its Final Decision could be anything but final.

The supermajority of Republican-appointed conservative justices on the U.S. Supreme Court has already demonstrated its willingness to romp willy-nilly over settled law regardless of facts and precedent. It is only a matter of time before the Clean Water Act gets similar treatment.

Leading U.S. businesses that rallied to help protect Bristol Bay will need to take it to the next level, and join those who are advocating for ethics reform and a return to judicial norms at the highest court in the land. 

Image credit: echoforsberg via Wikimedia Commons

Tina Casey headshot

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.

Read more stories by Tina Casey