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Indian Country Today

Environmental and tribal organizations are celebrating a decision by the Trump administration to deny a permit for a controversial gold and copper mine near the headwaters of the world’s largest sockeye salmon fishery in southwest Alaska.

The Army Corps of Engineers said in a statement that the permit application to build the Pebble Mine was denied under both the Clean Water Act and the Rivers and Harbors Act.

The corps also said the discharge plan from the Pebble Limited Partnership, the mine’s backers, doesn’t comply with Clean Water Act guidelines.

The statement from Col. Damon Delarosa, commander of the corps’ Alaska district, says the agency “concluded that the proposed project is contrary to the public interest.”

A coalition of area tribes, in a prepared statement, said tribes and others are celebrating the Corps’ decision “as the decision reflects the sound science and overwhelming public opposition to this toxic project.”

The United Tribes of Bristol Bay, a coalition of 15 federally recognized Yup’ik, Dena’ina, and Alutiiq tribes in Southwest Alaska, said the threat of large-scale mining will loom until permanent protection of the Bristol Bay watershed is achieved.

“Future generations should not have to live with the threat of mining developments that would devastate our cultures, communities, and existing economies. We must ensure that Bristol Bay’s pristine lands and waters are protected in perpetuity. The fact that this permit denial comes from a pro-development administration speaks volumes to the need for strong, permanent protections for the Bristol Bay watershed and all it sustains," the tribes said in a statement.

Pictured: Alannah Hurley (Yup’ik), United Tribes of Bristol Bay.

Robert Heyano, the coalition board president, added, “The people of Bristol Bay have long known that our home is no place for a mine like Pebble. Today, we celebrate the appropriate action taken by the USACE in finally acknowledging this underlying truth: Pebble’s proposal is too toxic for our region and cannot be built without devastating the environment that sustains our cultures and communities.”

However, “our work is not done,” Heyano said.

“We will continue to advocate for permanent protections for Bristol Bay until we are sure that our pristine lands and waters will remain intact for our children’s children and all future generations,” Heyano said. “A big quyana [thank you in Yup'ik] to all those who have worked to stop this toxic project and to those who will continue to fight for Bristol Bay.”

Tim Bristol, SalmonState executive director, said, “Sometimes a project is so bad, so indefensible, that the politics fall to the wayside and we get the right decision. That is what happened today.” He and other representatives of several other opponents said permanent protections are needed to protect Bristol Bay.

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Many are also thankful that the wildlife will be safe now.

Brian Kraft, owner of Alaska Sportsman’s Lodge, is president of Katmai Service Providers, a coalition of 64 Alaska fishing, hunting, bear viewing and tourism businesses that operate in the Bristol Bay region. He said “the world-renowned spawning grounds of the Bristol Bay region are simply no place for large, industrial, open-pit mining operations. Kudos to this Administration for seeing this project for what it was—a half-baked and risky proposal that does not belong in the heart of Bristol Bay.”

“I am relieved and thankful,” said Nanci Morris Lyon, resident of King Salmon, Alaska, and owner of Bear Trail Lodge. “This is the right call.”

Trout Unlimited also called the decision a victory for common sense.

The Pebble Project would have been the nation’s largest open-pit mine, and one of the largest in the world.

Over the course of the two-year permitting process, the draft and final environmental impact statements were heavily criticized as being full of holes by federal agencies ranging from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to the US Coast Guard. The plans  sketched out significant aspects of the project — such as roads and bridges, a port, and fuel lines — but provided too few details. Scientists said the planning documents misrepresented the facts. Opponents rallied hundreds of thousands of people to send comments. Still, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers seemed poised to approved the project.

Donald Trump, Jr. speaking with supporters at a rally, in Sun City, Arizona. (Photo by Gage Skidmore, Creative Commons)

One note of hope for opponents came when Donald Trump, Jr. spoke out against the project.

“The headwaters of Bristol Bay and the surrounding fishery are too unique and fragile to take any chances with. #PebbleMine,” he tweeted in August.

President Donald J. Trump then said he would look at “both sides” of the issue.

Pebble Partnership CEO John Shively issued a statement

“We are obviously dismayed by today’s news given that the USACE [US Army Corps of Engineers] had published an Environmental Impact Statement in July that clearly stated the project could successfully co-exist with the fishery and would have provided substantial economic benefit to the communities closest to the deposit,” the statement read. “One of the real tragedies of this decision is the loss of economic opportunities for people living in the area.”

The Pebble statement said planning documents described the project’s benefits “and now a politically driven decision has taken away the hope that many had for a better life … ”

The mining company said, “Since the beginning of the federal review, our team has worked closely with the USACE staff to understand their requirements for responsibly developing the project including changing the transportation corridor and re-vamping the approach to wetlands mitigation. All of these efforts led to a comprehensive, positive EIS for the project that clearly stated it could be developed responsibly. It is very disconcerting to see political influence in this process at the eleventh hour.”

The company said they will focus on the next steps for the project that includes an appeal of the decision.

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The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Correction: Added identification to the photo of Alannah Hurley.

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