The Environmental Protection Agency has vetoed a controversial proposed gold and copper mine in Alaska.
Pebble Limited Partnership, the company that would control the mine commonly known as Pebble Mine, argues it would bring economic opportunity to the Bristol Bay region of Alaska. However, the location of the mine and the infrastructure needed for it to become operational is the focus of a coalition of local Alaska Natives, fishermen and conservation groups concerned about the environmental impact it would have on the Bristol Bay watershed, which is home to the world's largest sockeye salmon fishery.
"After extensive review of scientific and technical research spanning two decades, and robust stakeholder engagement, EPA has determined that certain discharges associated with developing the Pebble deposit will have unacceptable adverse effects on certain salmon fishery areas in the Bristol Bay watershed," the EPA said in a statement Monday.
The EPA, citing the Clean Water Act, said it has the authority to veto the project because of the impact of "certain discharges of dredged or fill material associated with development of a mine at the Pebble deposit."
Pebble Limited Partnership said it will fight the EPA's decision, which it said will hurt the economic opportunity for local residents.
"Today's action by the EPA to preemptively veto the proposed Pebble Project is unlawful and unprecedented. For well over a decade, we have argued that fair treatment under the rules and regulations of the U.S should be followed for Pebble or any other development project," Pebble Limited Partnership CEO John Shively said in a statement. "Unfortunately, the Biden EPA continues to ignore fair and due process in favor of politics. 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.
"Pebble development can be done in an environmentally responsible manner without harm to the Bristol Bay fishery," Shively's statement continued. "Unfortunately, EPA's decision ignores their purported commitment to environmental justice as it dashes the hopes of hundreds of local Native Americans for a brighter economic future."
The Army Corps of Engineers denied the permit application for Pebble Mine in 2020, a decision that was later appealed by Pebble Limited Partnership. Using the details provided in that permit application, in December 2022, the EPA's local administrator suggested a veto of the mine, due to how the company planned to discharge materials "for the construction and routine operation of the mine."
The EPA said the region near the proposed project is home to 25 Alaska Native villages and communities and "is an area of unparalleled ecological value, with salmon diversity and productivity unrivaled anywhere in North America."
In an unusual move shortly after the recommendation to veto the mine proposal, an Alaskan Native group sold land it owns near Pebble Mine for $20 million as "conservation easements," which under Alaskan law prevents any future development at those sites. These easements would block the construction of a key transportation road that mine developers planned to build.
The money from the easements will go to the Pedro Bay Corporation, an Alaska Native village corporation that owns land where part of the transportation road to the mine would be built. Pedro Bay Corporation shareholders are Alaska Natives who inhabit the eastern shore of Lake Iliamna in the Bristol Bay region and have a vested interest in not only the economic prosperity of the region but also in maintaining their cultural traditions.
Pedro Bay Corporation has not responded to ABC News' request for comment.
Funding for the conservation easements was raised from a variety of donors in an effort spearheaded by The Conservation Fund. The president and CEO of the Conservation Fund, Larry Selzer, told ABC News this money will compensate the Pedro Bay Corporation for the appraised value of the land, taking into consideration the economic opportunities future development projects like Pebble Mine would bring to the region if they moved forward.
However, the prospect of job opportunities and other economic benefits from Pebble Mine are not the only reason Pebble Limited Partnership said they want to mine there. Some of the metals that would be extracted from Pebble Mine are essential for a transition to renewable energy sources, which is considered a key part in the global effort to mitigate against the effects of climate change.
"The copper at Pebble could provide a critical metal necessary for the substantial increase in renewable sources of energy which require significant amounts of mined materials in order to meet the nation's stated goals for renewable energy," Mike Heatwole, a Pebble Limited Partnership spokesperson, told ABC News.
"A prime question for policymakers is whether we want to produce these minerals domestically under the most stringent environmental standards or if we intend to turn a blind eye and get the metals from other countries," Heatwole added.
The executive director of the Bristol Bay Heritage Land Trust, Tim Troll, was also involved in the purchase of the conservation easements, which the land trust now holds. The exact locations for the easements were chosen to protect two rivers and a creek that feeds into Lake Iliamna. All of them are considered to be important bodies of water for the salmon habitat.
In an interview with ABC News, Troll cited a specific concern for "fugitive dust," a term used to describe small particles that pollute the air as well as water ecosystems, which he said trucks using the transportation road for mining activities could release into the environment.
Selzer said the Conservation Fund balances economic and environmental objectives carefully, and is not anti-mining, acknowledging the role it will play in a transition to greener energy systems.
But Selzer said that there is no safe way to build Pebble Mine due to seismic activity in the region and its proximity to the Bristol Bay watershed.
"There are other places to mine," Selzer told ABC News. "There are not other places to fish salmon at this scale."