Biden-Harris Administration Announces Action to Help Protect Bristol Bay Salmon Fisheries
WASHINGTON — Today, EPA issued a Final Determination under the Clean Water Act to help protect Bristol Bay, the most productive wild salmon ecosystem in the world. With this action, the Biden-Harris Administration is protecting certain waters that are important to sustaining Southwest Alaska’s salmon resources from disposal of dredged or fill materials associated with developing the Pebble deposit.
Protecting Bristol Bay builds on a series of recent actions the Biden-Harris Administration has taken to conserve and restore some of America’s most cherished lands and waters, many of which are sacred to Tribal Nations. Last week the Administration finalized protections for the Tongass National Forest in Alaska and the Boundary Waters Area Watershed in Minnesota.
“The Bristol Bay watershed is a vital economic driver, providing jobs, sustenance, and significant ecological and cultural value to the region,” said EPA Administrator Michael Regan. “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.”
“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 EPA Assistant Administrator for Water Radhika Fox. “Our Final Determination helps prevent those adverse effects while helping protect a vibrant and magnificent watershed. It’s also important to note that EPA’s action does not apply to current or future resource development projects in Alaska.”
The Bristol Bay watershed’s fishery resources are a thriving economic driver for the region, generating significant nutritional, cultural, economic, and recreational value. The total economic value, including subsistence uses of the Bristol Bay watershed’s salmon resources, was estimated at more than $2.2 billion in 2019 and results in 15,000 jobs annually. The Bristol Bay Watershed is home to 25 Alaska Native villages and communities and supports one of the last intact, sustainable salmon-based cultures in the world. Salmon provides more than half of the subsistence harvest for some Alaska Native communities in the Bristol Bay region.
After reviewing the Recommended Determination provided by EPA’s Region 10 office, including the scientific and technical information spanning nearly two decades, EPA has determined that the discharges evaluated in the Final Determination will have unacceptable adverse effects on salmon fishery areas in the South Fork Koktuli River, North Fork Koktuli River, and Upper Talarik Creek watersheds of Bristol Bay. Ecologically valuable streams, wetlands, and other aquatic habitats, like those found in these watersheds, provide the foundation for the productive fishery areas in the region.
The Final Determination prohibits certain waters of the United States in the South Fork Koktuli River and North Fork Koktuli River watersheds from being used as disposal sites for the discharge of dredged or fill material for the construction and routine operation of Pebble Limited Partnership’s mine plan described in its June 8, 2020 CWA Section 404 permit application. It also prohibits future proposals to construct and operate a mine to develop the Pebble deposit that would result in the same or greater levels of loss or change to aquatic resources. The Final Determination also restricts the use of certain waters of the United States in the South Fork Koktuli River, North Fork Koktuli River, and Upper Talarik Creek watersheds as disposal sites for the discharge of dredged or fill material associated with future proposals to develop the Pebble deposit that would result in adverse effects similar or greater in nature and magnitude to those associated with the 2020 Mine Plan.
In the 50-year history of the Clean Water Act, EPA has used its Section 404(c) authority judiciously. Today’s action marks the third time in 30 years, and only the 14th time in the history of the Clean Water Act, that EPA has used this authority. This highlights the value of the Bristol Bay watershed’s fishery resources.
The federal government, the State of Alaska, federally recognized Tribal governments, the Pebble Limited Partnership, and many interested stakeholders have devoted significant resources over many years of study, engagement, and review. Considering the extensive record, 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. 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 prohibition and restriction in EPA’s Final Determination only apply to certain discharges of dredged or fill material associated with developing the Pebble Deposit. This action does not apply to any current or future resource development projects in the state of Alaska.
A copy of the Final Determination is available on EPA’s Bristol Bay website at: www.epa.gov/bristolbay.
The Pebble deposit, a large, low-grade deposit containing copper-, gold-, and molybdenum-bearing minerals, is located at the headwaters of the pristine Bristol Bay watershed in Southwest Alaska. The Pebble deposit underlies portions of the South Fork Koktuli River, North Fork Koktuli River, and Upper Talarik Creek watersheds, which drain to two of the largest rivers in the Bristol Bay watershed, the Nushagak and Kvichak Rivers.
Efforts to evaluate the effects of developing a mine at the Pebble deposit have been underway for more than a decade. The Pebble Limited Partnership’s 2020 Mine Plan underwent the CWA Section 404 permit review process with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and was evaluated in the context of an Environmental Impact Statement pursuant to the National Environmental Policy Act. In November 2020, USACE denied Pebble Limited Partnership’s permit application; Pebble Limited Partnership appealed the permit denial with USACE, and review of the appeal is ongoing.
The diverse, abundant, and high-quality streams, wetlands, and other aquatic habitats in the South Fork Koktuli River, North Fork Koktuli River, and Upper Talarik Creek watersheds provide important spawning and rearing habitat for Coho, Chinook, and Sockeye salmon and provide high-quality habitat for other fishes, such as Rainbow Trout, Dolly Varden, Arctic Grayling, and Northern Pike. The aquatic habitats of the South Fork Koktuli River, North Fork Koktuli River, and Upper Talarik Creek watersheds also provide critical support for downstream habitats. By contributing water, organic matter, and macroinvertebrates to downstream systems, these headwater areas help maintain downstream habitats and fuel their fish productivity. Together, these functions—direct provision of high-quality habitat and indirect provision of other resources to downstream habitats— support the valuable fisheries of the Bristol Bay watershed.
The objective of the Clean Water Act is to restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the nation’s waters. EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers share responsibilities for implementing Section 404 of the Clean Water Act. Section 404(a) of the Clean Water Act requires a permit from the Corps of Engineers to discharge dredged or fill material into waters of the United States. Section 404(c) of the Clean Water Act authorizes EPA to prohibit the specification of or restrict the use for specification of any defined area as a disposal site for the discharge of dredged or fill material whenever it determines that such discharges will have an unacceptable adverse effect on fishery areas (including spawning and breeding areas