Groups sue EPA for gutting protections and clearing path for Pebble

Lawsuit charges EPA with unlawfully withdrawing proposed protections for Bristol Bay, Alaska

ANCHORAGE (AK)—More than a dozen groups sued the Environmental Protection Agency today for failing to protect Alaska fisheries, wildlife, jobs, communities, and ways of life from the proposed Pebble mine.

The lawsuit is one of three charging the EPA with breaking the law when it withdrew a 2014 Proposed Determination setting out protections for Bristol Bay, Alaska. The EPA abandoned protections for the Bristol Bay watershed in late summer. According to news reports, the decision to withdraw protections occurred after President Trump met with Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy in June.

“The EPA’s decision to abandon protections for the world’s largest wild salmon fishery on behalf of the Pebble mine is an appalling example of politics over science,” said Bonnie Gestring, northwest program director for Earthworks. “We know of no other mine that will have such devastating consequences for clean water.”

“A ‘fair and rigorous’ process means proponents for the proposed Pebble Mine don’t get to toss out scientific studies that show truths they’d rather ignore,” said Tim Bristol, executive director of SalmonState. “With its mine proposal, Pebble Limited Partnership perpetuates a myth that building a colossal open-pit mine will not have negative impacts on the world’s greatest wild salmon fishery. History and the science say otherwise. Unfortunately, backroom deals and cronyism between political appointees and mining lobbyists have left us with no choice but to petition the courts for relief.”

“The EPA’s attempt to reject its own science-based conclusions is clearly arbitrary and capricious, wholly political, and legally indefensible,” said Katie Strong, senior staff attorney for Trustees for Alaska. “The EPA’s Proposed Determination found that even a small mine in the headwaters of Bristol Bay could devastate the region’s fisheries and communities. Science overwhelmingly supports that conclusion, yet this administration continues to aggressively ignore science and public processes to benefit special interests.”

Today’s litigation comes weeks after Sen. Lisa Murkowski expressed concerns over the scientific and technical deficiencies in the Army Corps’ draft environmental impact statement for Pebble. As chair of a subcommittee, she supported an appropriations bill that encourages agencies to use their enforcement authorities to protect Bristol Bay if the Army Corps fails to fix the flaws and gaps in its analysis.

“EPA’s decision to abandon protections for Bristol Bay is driven by politics, not science, and Alaska’s wild salmon fishery and the people and communities who depend on it are the victims,” said Joel Reynolds, the western director at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “The Trump Administration’s backing of a foreign mining company over the people of Alaska in disregard of science-based safeguards is arbitrary, capricious, and illegal.”

Trustees for Alaska filed the suit on behalf of 12 clients: The Alaska Center, Alaska Community Action on Toxics, Alaska Wilderness League, Cook Inletkeeper, Defenders of Wildlife, Friends of McNeil River, McNeil River Alliance, National Parks Conservation Association, National Wildlife Federation, SalmonState, Sierra Club, and Wild Salmon Center.

NRDC joined the case representing itself. Earthworks joined the case represented by Earthjustice, a nonprofit environmental law firm.

“We’re honored to stand with Bristol Bay communities in fighting the threat of the Pebble mine to the world’s greatest salmon fishery,” said Tom Waldo, a staff attorney with Earthjustice. “EPA was right in 2014 when it first proposed to protect Bristol Bay, and right again in 2018 when it stood by that proposal. Its cowardly reversal this summer violated the agency’s duty to protect an irreplaceable resource and the people who depend on it.”

Bristol Bay groups filed a related lawsuit on Oct. 8, and Trout Unlimited filed one today.