EPA Proposes to Remove Protections for Alaskan Watershed That Is Home to 30 Native Villages

July 19, 2017

The EPA proposed yesterday (July 11) to remove restrictions for the planned Pebble Mine Project near Bristol Bay, Alaska.

Alaska Native communities, along with fishermen, fought hard to establish protections for the proposed site, which holds valuable copper and mine but sits dangerously close to the watershed that is home to the world’s largest sockeye salmon fishery—a resource on which many groups of Native people rely for their culture and subsistence lifestyle. Thirty-one Alaska Native villages dot the wider Bristol Bay region.

They spent more than a decade protesting the extraction project through litigation and campaigns. And in 2014, the environmental agency announced it would block the project under the Clean Water Act—but this came only after measuring what impacts the project would have.

Its 2014 assessment said:

The predominant Alaska Native cultures present in the Nushagak and Kvichak River watersheds—the Yup’ik and Dena’ina—are two of the last intact, sustainable, salmon-based cultures in the world. In contrast, other Pacific Northwest salmon-based cultures are severely threatened by development, degraded natural resources, and declining salmon resources.

Salmon are integral to these cultures’ entire way of life via the provision of subsistence food and subsistencebased livelihoods, and are an important foundation for their language, spirituality, and social structure. The cultures have a strong connection to the landscape and its resources. In the Bristol Bay watershed, this connection has been maintained for at least 4,000 years and is in part both due to and responsible for the continued undisturbed condition of the region’s landscape and biological resources. The respect and importance given salmon and other wildlife, along with traditional knowledge of the environment, have produced a sustainable subsistencebased economy. This subsistence-based way of life is a key element of Alaska Native identity and serves a wide range of economic, social, and cultural functions in Yup’ik and Dena’ina societies.

That assessment found that mining-related stressors would “affect the Bristol Bay watershed’s fish and consequently affect wildlife and human welfare.” Still, the agency behind these findings is retracting that move and opening up its proposed withdrawal to public comment after announcing in May that it would begin the process. The EPA is seeking tribal consult, according to its press release.

The agency states:

EPA is consulting on the proposed withdrawal with federally recognized tribal governments of the Bristol Bay region and with Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act Regional and Village Corporations with lands in the Bristol Bay watershed. The public comment and tribal consultation process allows EPA to hear from the public before final decisions are made. After the close of the public comment and tribal consultation process, the EPA will decide whether to issue a final withdrawal of the 2014 Proposed Determination. EPA is also requesting public comment on whether the EPA Administrator should review and reconsider a final withdrawal decision, if such a decision is made.

Some environmental organizations, including the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), have taken issue with this proposal as it re-opens the door for environmental degradation, they say. “EPA’s proposed withdrawal is an outrageous capitulation to mining interests at the expense of the American people and our economy,” the NRDC wrote in an online statement.

The public can send any comments on this proposal within 90 days to ow-docket@epa.gov with docket number EPA-R10-OW-2017-0369.

Yessenia Funes

Yessenia Funes is the climate justice reporter for Colorlines. She was previously an editor at YES! Magazine, where she covered racial justice with a solutions lens. Her work has appeared in Grist, AlterNet, Public Radio International, and Truthout. Her writing touches on how race and the environment intersect, but she is passionate about any and all social justice issues. Readers can find her essay on El Salvador's environmental degradation in the 2017 Women of Color Anthology. A daughter to Salvadoran immigrants, Yessenia dreams of reporting on climate and environmental justice in Latin America.

Tags: environmental effects of mining, indigenous lifeways