Salmon are left without energy after their arduous journey back to their spawning grounds, and the lake shores in the Bristol Bay watershed are littered with salmon carcasses. But in their wake, millions of eggs will hatch an entire new generation of salmon. Photo credit: Duncan Sullivan

There haven’t been too many environmental bright spots since Trump became the nation’s climate-denier-in-chief, but this weekend offered a rare opportunity to celebrate: Scott Pruitt announced that the EPA isn’t scrapping Obama-era protections that had been keeping a massive open-pit mine out of the world’s largest wild salmon habitat, in Bristol Bay, Alaska. Pruitt’s move doesn’t block the proposed mine from continuing along the arduous application process, but it does keep a series of restrictions hanging over the project, making development less likely.

“[It] is my judgment at this time that any mining projects in the region likely pose a risk to the abundant natural resources that exist there,” Pruitt said in a statement on Friday. “Until we know the full extent of that risk, those natural resources and world-class fisheries deserve the utmost protection.”

So, for the first time ever I can say with zero sarcasm: “Way to go Pruitt, you did the right thing!”

The complex water systems of Bristol Bay that produce millions of salmon every year. Photo credit: Duncan Sullivan

Bristol Bay holds the world’s largest salmon habitat, with over 30 million fish returning from the ocean ever year to swim up rivers to their spawning grounds. This region is the last place on the planet where wild salmon are found in such numbers, and the salmon in turn provide 14,000 full and seasonal jobs, about $1.5 billion in annual revenue, as well as food and cultural significance to the Native Alaskan tribes of the area. While pretty much every wild salmon run in the Lower-48 has been trashed by overfishing or human development, Bristol Bay has been commercially and sustainably fished for about 150 years. This is largely thanks to Alaska’s meticulous fisheries management process, the lack of industrial development in the region and the fact that Alaskans actually care about protecting their environment.

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The Pebble deposit sits in between the Kvichak and Nushagak rivers, two of the most productive water systems in Bristol Bay. Graphic source: EPA

And yet the region has long faced an existential threat: rich mineral deposits found directly beneath the salmon spawning grounds. While there are a number of mining claims throughout the Bristol Bay watershed, the one that poses the most immediate threat is the Pebble Mine project: an enormous deposit of copper and gold smack in the middle of the two largest river systems of Southwest Alaska’s Bristol Bay. Northern Dynasty, the company that owns the mining rights to the proposed Pebble Mine, estimates that the deposit holds 107 million ounces of gold and 81 billion pounds of copper, enough to increase U.S. copper production by 20 percent.

“You couldn’t find a worse place for the Pebble Mine if you tried…the size of the deposit, the type of the deposit and the location of the deposit,” said Rick Halford, former Alaska State Senator, to Project Earth in an interview this past September. “People that are pro-mining in general are anti-Pebble in specific.”

Fishermen, Alaskan Native groups, and environmentally concerned politicians have long opposed the Pebble Mine project; the EPA’s 2014 decision to regulate the proposed mine under the Clean Water Act came after the agency received intense pressure to intercede. It seems that similar pressures played a rule in Pruitt’s decision to keep the 2014 restrictions on the table. Video Credit: Duncan Sullivan/Cause+Effect

In 2014, at the urging of fishermen and Alaskan Native groups, the EPA interceded on the Pebble Mine, releasing a scathing scientific assessment of the impacts that a large mine could have on the region and proposing a number of restrictions to the Pebble project. These proposed regulations all but killed the mining project, with stock prices plummeting, major investors pulling out and Northern Dynasty experiencing serious downsizing.

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But then Trump and Pruitt came to the scene. After meeting with the CEO of Northern Dyansty, Pruitt announced that the EPA would be withdrawing the restrictions it had proposed in 2014, settling a long-standing lawsuit with the mining company. But last Friday the EPA did an about-face, putting the proposed restrictions back on the table. The decision came after meeting with tribal governments, regional stakeholders, and receiving over one million public comments about the conservation of Bristol Bay.

Bill Walker, the governor of Alaska, released a statement where he thanked the EPA and Trump “for listening to my input, as well as the input of thousands of Alaskans who oppose rescinding the EPA’s Bristol Bay assessment.” He went on to reiterate his “belief that in the Bristol Bay region we should prioritize the resource that has sustained generations and must continue to do so in perpetuity.”

Notably, the move by the EPA doesn’t block the mining project from moving forward, just means that the EPA can, in the future, enforce a series of regulations on the development of the mine; the regulations, which fall under the jurisdiction of the Clean Water Act, have to do with where and how the proposed mine could deal with the discharge of “dredged or fill material.”

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The mining camp at the Pebble Mine, which sits atop hundreds of billions of dollar worth of copper and gold. Photo credit: Duncan Sullivan

For its part, Northern Dynasty isn’t going to give up the Pebble Project (and the $300 billion worth in copper and gold) quietly. Northern Dynasty released a timetable of “project milestones” in September of 2017, which aims to finish the permitting phase and begin construction neatly within the four years of Trump’s first term; they successfully attracted an investor in December of 2017, which brings much needed capital for the application process and development stages of the mine; and the project officially began the permitting process as 2017 came to a close.

“We have every confidence that Pebble’s ultimate project design will meet the rigorous environmental standards enforced in Alaska and the US,” said Ron Thiessen, president and CEO of Northern Dynasty, in a statement. “We expect the permitting process for Pebble to advance expeditiously over the next few years.”

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Clearly the fight for Bristol Bay isn’t over. But for once, just once, Pruitt helped rather than hurt the environmental cause. And that’s cause for a little celebration.

A truck in Dillingham, Alaska, with an anti-pebble mine sticker. Photo credit: Duncan Sullivan