Under pressure from hunters, anglers, conservationists, and even the Trump family, the Trump Administration announced today that it would not issue critical Clean Water Act permits for the contentious Pebble Mine. While this action does not outright kill the Canadian firm Northern Dynasty Mineral’s long-running effort to mine gold, copper, and molybdenum in Alaska’s pristine Bristol Bay region, it is a major setback that drastically narrows their path to groundbreaking.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers issued their final environmental impact statement on July 23 and appeared poised to move forward with permitting in short order. A cacophony rose from the sportsmen of the nation in recent weeks, imploring President Trump to block the potentially dangerous mine. Hundreds of outdoors businesses and nonprofits sent letters to the White House. Millions of Americans signed petitions. Donald Trump Jr. tweeted in opposition. Republican mega-donor Andy Sabin spoke directly with the president. And the founder and CEO of Bass Pro Shops, Johnny Morris, recorded a segment about Pebble with Fox News primetime host and Trump favorite Tucker Carlson, in which he directly and emotionally implored the president to block the mine.
The brief press release repeats the oft-cited concern that Pebble “would likely result in significant degradation of the environment and would likely result in significant adverse effects on the aquatic system or human environment.” The statement seems to acknowledge the fact that Pebble, sited on a saddle between the headwaters of two of the most important salmon-bearing streams in Bristol Bay, would likely cause irreparable damage to the region’s $1.5 billion commercial and recreational fishing industry and the tens of thousands of people who depend on it. The Pebble Partnership now has 90 days to resubmit their application to better address how they would mitigate for direct and indirect effects of the mine.
The Corps denied Pebble’s Clean Water Act dredge-and-fill permit application as submitted, greatly obstructing the mine, but declined to exercise the section 404(c) clause of the Act, often called a “veto,” which the Obama Administration pursued after a three-year impact study indicated the mine would have “significant adverse effects.” Trump’s EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler undid that veto finding in 2019, which allowed Pebble to move forward with permitting. The denial of that permit seems to have surprised even Northern Dynasty Minerals, who previously enjoyed a friendly relationship with the current administration and spent millions lobbying them.
Conservationists across the country, some of whom have been doggedly fighting this mine for over a decade, celebrated the Army Corps decision with great enthusiasm.
“This is a great demonstration of democracy in action and a victory for common sense. The finding demonstrates that the voices of millions of Americans still matter and reflects the overwhelming weight of scientific evidence that’s been brought to bear,” said Chris Wood, president and CEO of Trout Unlimited. “The more public scrutiny this mine faces, the more science that’s brought to bear in its review, the more it stinks. The resources that sustain this bucket-list destination for sport anglers, local communities and commercial fishing families are worth protecting. Thank you to the legions of supporters that helped us get here.”
While toasting victory in a major battle, many hunters, anglers, and conservationists acknowledge that the war isn’t won. Pebble will apply again, with more and better compensatory mitigation measures for the nearly 200 miles of streams and 4,500 acres of wetlands and waters their mine would threaten. Even though 62% of Alaskans oppose the project, their governor is not among them, and support remains in Juneau and Washington, D.C. Northern Dynasty’s stock price is in freefall, but still holds value. Some people are hopeful that this administration or the next one will pursue the Clean Water Act 404(c) veto to bury this mine once and for all.
Miles Nolte, MeatEater’s director of fishing, used to work as a fishing guide in the Bristol Bay region and even wrote a book about his experiences there. He’s seen the Pebble Mine almost die, only to claw back to life, several times before.
“This mining project has been like a spawned-out chum salmon wallowing in a back-eddy and refusing to die for years. Though this permit rejection strikes another blow at this half-rotten fish of a bad idea, the gills are still flaring. Let’s all celebrate this moment and appreciate that groups of people who generally can’t agree on anything were able to set aside their mutual mistrust to protect a fishery and ecosystem unlike any other left on the planet. Then, let’s find a way to make this permanent. This particular mine in this particular place isn’t worth the cost.”
Feature image by Tosh Brown.