On Thursday, the Biden administration took the initial steps toward safeguarding Alaska's pristine Bristol Bay, home to one of the world's most lucrative sockeye salmon fisheries and lies above enormous copper and gold resources long sought after by mining corporations.

The government has filed a suit in the United States District Court for the District of Alaska to overturn a Trump-era decision that removed environmental protections from Bristol Bay, roughly 200 miles southwest of Anchorage. If the court agrees, the government may start drafting long-term safeguards for the region. 

Pink Salmon (IMAGE)
(Photo : Jason Ching/University of Washington)
Wild Bristol Bay sockeye salmon are competing for food in the ocean with hatchery-released pink salmon (pictured above) and chum salmon.

Reversing What Trump Did

The Environmental Protection Agency said in a statement that President Donald J. Trump's administration acted illegally in 2019 when it dismissed fears that a proposed large gold and copper mine would endanger fisheries and withdrew federal safeguards from Bristol Bay.

Because the Trump administration refused a critical permit for the project, known as Pebble Mine, in 2020, the action will have a minimal immediate impact. That happened when President Trump's son Donald Trump Jr. and Fox News host Tucker Carlson, both of whom love hunting and fishing in the area, formed an unusual alliance with environmentalists and Native tribes to fight the project.

However, environmental campaigners pointed out that the Pebble Limited Partnership, the firm proposing to develop the mine, appeals to the Army Corps of Engineers' decision to deny the permission. To get the metals, the business intends to excavate a hole that is more than a mile square and a third of a mile deep. It is believed that the metals are worth at least $300 billion.

The project would entail building a 270-megawatt power plant, a 165-mile natural gas pipeline, an 82-mile road, and enormous tailings ponds, some of which would be poisonous. Iliamna Bay would also need to be dredged for a port.

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One Step at a Time

Bristol Bay
(Photo : Wikimedia Commons)

There is now nothing in place to prevent a future attempt at a mining operation in the area. However, the Biden administration's plea to the court is the first step toward that change.

Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington State, a Democrat, stated in a statement to The New York Times, "I'm glad the Biden administration has taken this vital step to guarantee lasting protection for this unique watershed and the salmon and people it supports." "Mining in the Bristol Bay watershed would have irreversibly harmed the world's largest sockeye fishery."

The planned Pebble Mine, located in two watersheds that supply fish-spawning rivers, was deemed to inflict irreversible damage by both federal and state agencies. According to scientists, it would damage more than 130 kilometers of streams, 2,800 acres of wetlands, and 130 acres of open water.

President Biden campaigned on a vow to "listen to the scientists and safeguard Bristol Bay."

"It is no place for a mine," Mr. Biden said, praising the region as essential to Alaska Natives' way of life, a popular fishing destination, and the source of half the world's sockeye salmon.

Obama's Original Plan

After a three-year scientific review, President Barack Obama's administration concluded in 2014 that the Pebble Mine project could have "catastrophic" effects in some parts of Bristol Bay, including "complete loss of fish habitat due to elimination, dewatering, and fragmentation of streams, wetlands, and other aquatic resources."

Obama's Environmental Protection Agency made a draft finding under a Clean Water Act clause that would have functioned as a veto and effectively barred mining in the region. However, the Pebble Limited Partnership sued the government many times, and the decision was still pending when Mr. Trump entered office.

In 2019, the Trump administration, which had already repealed over 100 environmental rules, yanked the Obama-era designation and declared it "outdated," citing litigation filed by the Pebble Mine as one of the significant new events.

Partnering with the EPA

Bristol Bay
(Photo : Wikimedia Commons)

In a statement, Mike Heatwole, a spokesperson for the Pebble Mine Partnership, said the business expects to track the E.P.A.'s activities to see how they affect the project and permitting process.

He stated, "As the Biden Administration pursues reduced carbon emissions for energy production, they should understand that such transformation would necessitate considerably greater mineral output, particularly copper." "The Pebble Project continues to be an essential domestic supply of the minerals required by the administration to meet its green energy objectives."

In a statement, E.P.A. Administrator Michael Regan said that if the court rules favor the Biden administration, the agency will set a timeline for beginning the Clean Water Act procedure to preserve Bristol Bay from development.

Mr. Regan stated, "What's at risk is preventing pollution that would disproportionately affect Alaska Natives and safeguarding a healthy future for North America's most productive salmon fishery."

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