June 11, 2018

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Proposed Alaskan Pebble Mine Could Threaten the World's Largest Salmon Fishery and Surrounding Wetlands

In December 2017, Pebble Limited Partnership filed for a permit to develop an open-pit gold and copper mine and associated infrastructure in the Bristol Bay region of Alaska, an area that produces about half of the world’s sockeye salmon. The site would include an open pit mine more than a mile across, a 188-mile natural gas pipeline, an on-site power plant, and a ferry to carry mined ore across nearby Lake Iliamna to the port. Additionally, Pebble would create a 3,600-acre tailings compound behind a 685-foot high earthen dam and another 2,300-acre waste rock pile.

The permit for such a potential environmental threat would usually take years, but the CEO of Pebble LP, Tom Collier, is confident it can be done in less than two – which would have seemed impossible after the 2014 Environmental Protection Agency report entitled the Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment (BBWA) was issued. After analyzing three different mine sizes, the assessment determined any of the three mine sizes studied posed significant risks to the fishery both in everyday operations and in the event of a mining accident. Despite this finding, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt announced in January of this year that he would allow the permitting process to go forward.

Potential Catastrophic Environmental Harm

According to the official Pebble Mine plan and as reported by Greenwire, the mine would destroy 3,668 acres of wetlands and tens of miles of streams in the Nushagak and Kvichak river drainages. These estimates could increase substantially depending on the size of the mine, reaching over 5,000 acres of wetlands and up to 94 miles of salmon-supporting streams.

The potential environmental impact of such a massive open-pit mine is significant. For example, E&E News reported the following regarding vulnerabilities to the salmon fishery:

Bristol Bay’s juvenile salmon stay in headwaters and wetlands until they are old enough to go downstream. The diversity of the watershed’s streams and wetlands is important, scientists say because fish that spawn in different areas of the estuary are genetically diverse.

Foes of the proposed mine say it would irreversibly damage salmon populations by destroying spawning habitat and weakening the gene pool. Moreover, they say, leaks or spills from a mine-waste disposal dam could cause catastrophic damage to the fishery.

As noted in the BBWA, even without a major accident or catastrophe, a mine the size of Pebble will eliminate or block up to 87 miles of salmon streams and remove or bury up to 4,200 acres of wetlands that are part of salmon habitat.

In addition to the threats to the salmon habitat, the greater ecosystem of the wetlands could be significantly compromised. As reported by The Wilderness Society, the EPA estimates that standard operations at the mine could destroy or negatively affect wetlands and habitats throughout the Bristol Bay watershed, including the destruction of 5,350 acres of wetlands, ponds and lakes. The watershed provides vital habitat for 29 fish species, more than 190 bird species, and more than 40 terrestrial animals. Bald eagles, moose, brown bears, rainbow trout, freshwater seals, Pacific walrus, North Pacific right whales and beluga whales all live in the region.

The opposition to the Pebble Mine is not limited to the United States. In a virtual vote, 170-nation IUCN World Conservation Congress unanimously opposed the Pebble Mine and urged the U.S. government to deny permits. The World Conservation Congress members include 217 countries and government agencies and more than 1,000 domestic and international NGOs, which rely on more than 16,000 experts around the world to address the most significant global threats to conservation – and for the IUCN, the Pebble Mine is one of those threats.

Current Situation

Although it is the charge of Alaska’s U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to require compensatory mitigation for such extensive damage, the Alaska District’s record suggests the Corp is soft on requiring mitigation. An E&E News analysis found that the Alaska District has required mitigation for only 26 percent of permit applications filed since 2015.

Despite the damning conclusions of the BBWA report, the serious concerns voiced by international scientists and the public, and the documented lack of mitigation required by the Corp of Engineers, an approved permit for the Pebble Mine is still very much a possibility.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers public comment period for this action is open until June 29. Comments can be submitted concerning the Pebble Project Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). The Corps website states that it would like input on issues and concerns that should be addressed in the EIS such as:

  • The way in which land and resources might be affected by the project
  • Ideas on alternatives and ways to minimize impacts

EPA's Science Advisory Board Holds First Meeting of 2018, Congress Signals Its Support

The Science Advisory Board (SAB) of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) held its first meeting of the year May 31 – June 1. The SAB is authorized to review the quality and relevance of the scientific and technical information being used by the EPA. The 44-member board, 15 of who were appointed by EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, questioned his efforts on, among other things, restrictions on the types of scientific evidence EPA uses to write its rules. The Board unanimously voted for a review of the ‘Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science’ proposed rule, known as the ‘secret science’ policy. This meeting was the first time that the full panel had considered the transparency rule. The EPA is not required to follow the advice of its advisory board, however, failing to do so could bolster legal challenges against the agency.

The SAB also voted to assess the research behind proposed regulations that will limit greenhouse gas emissions from power plants, vehicles, and oil and gas operations. This will include a review of the research behind Pruitt’s push to repeal the Clean Power Plan. As outlined by Nature, the plan sought to reduce carbon emissions from existing power plants and was former President Barack Obama’s signature climate-change policy. The advisers also intend to look over a decision made by the EPA in April to revoke emissions standards for vehicles manufactured between 2022 and 2025. The EPA has yet to propose new standards to replace the Clean Power Plan or the Obama administration’s vehicle-emissions regulations.

There was a discussion on whether the SAB should postpone review of several regulatory actions. Those advocating for delay argued no position should be taken until the EPA provided more information. However, the consensus was that it would be better to agree to review proactively – and narrow the scope of the review later, if new information warrants – than to take no action and hope for better information from EPA. Consequently, the full SAB voted in favor of recommending to the EPA that they review all the actions the workgroup identified as requiring scientific review.

Further, more than 20 speakers from a wide range of industries spoke at the open meeting, all advocating for full scientific reviews. Most speakers specifically supported SAB’s review of the rulemakings that would effectively roll back science-based regulations on vehicle and power plant emissions. Additionally, nine of the oral commenters were in strong support of SAB reviewing the proposed transparency rule.

Finally, it is worth noting that on June 7, a bipartisan group of over 100 members of Congress sent a letter to Pruitt “urging him to withdraw a recently-proposed, so-called “transparency rule” that would limit the scientific research available to EPA policymakers as they draft regulations.” The letter goes on to affirm the following:

“We support transparency and scientific integrity. However, the proposed rule will limit transparency and undermine the scientific integrity of EPA’s rulemaking process,” the letter said, noting it “would implement an opaque process allowing EPA to selectively suppress scientific evidence without accountability and in the process undermine bedrock environmental laws.”

As Inside Climate News noted, the meeting was the first since Pruitt instituted a new rule which bars scientific researchers who receive EPA grants from serving on the board. There is no similar ban for researchers who receive money from industry. Pruitt was invited to attend the meeting, but he declined to appear.


Appropriations: The House Appropriations Committee passed its fiscal year 2019 (FY) spending bill for the Department of the Interior, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Forest Service along party lines June 6. The bill provides $35 billion total in funding, equal to FY 2018 levels, and largely keeps agency budgets at the FY 2018 levels. The EPA’s budget is reduced to $7.95 billion, a $100 million cut. The U.S. Geological Survey’s Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Units (CRU) receive $19.3 million, an increase of $1.92 million. The Trump Administration proposed eliminating funding for the CRUs in the President’s 2019 budget.

The bill retains several policy riders included in the draft bill introduced in May – the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) is prohibited from listing the greater sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act, and the bill removes protections for gray wolves in the lower 48 states. Lawmakers also inserted some new policy riders during markup. The bill now prevents Interior from reintroducing grizzly bears in Washington State and allows Interior to use sterilization to manage wild horse and burro populations. USFWS is prohibited from issuing a final rule under the Endangered Species Act for the bi-state distinct population segment of greater-sage grouse and from setting aside 42,000 acres of land for marbled murrelet conservation. The marbled murrelet is a federally threatened seabird that nests in old-growth forests in the Pacific Northwest.

The full House voted to approve a $47 billion Energy and Water appropriations bill June 8. This bill includes $6.6 billion for the Department of Energy’s Office of Science. Lawmakers rejected an amendment to remove funding for DOE’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) program. The House bill includes an amendment to ban spending fund on developing or issuing regulations based on the social cost of carbon. Other amendments include a provision to provide $1.2 million to the Army Corps for a Great Lakes coastal resiliency study and for the Bureau of Reclamation to prioritize $12 million for water management research and development.

Rescissions: The House voted to approve a $14.7 billion package of rescissions, or cuts of previously appropriated spending, June 7. The bill includes includes $7 billion in cuts from the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), $144 million appropriated for the Environmental Quality Incentives Program and $335 million from Natural Resources Conservation Service easement programs. The final rescissions package does not include cuts to EPA water grants and Superstorm Sandy aid that the White House previously proposed. The rescissions package faces an uncertain future in the Senate, where Republican appropriators have expressed concerns about the cuts and the rescissions process.

Digital Coast Hearing: Lawmakers from both parties praised NOAA’s Digital Coast project, an online repository of maps, data and tools for coastal managers during a hearing of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation, Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries and Coast Guard June 5. Subcommittee Chairman Dan Sullivan (R-AK), Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) and representatives of local governments all said that the program helps protect public safety during natural disasters and is well worth its $1.8 million budget.

Farm Bill: The Senate Agriculture Committee released its draft version the 2018 Farm Bill. The bill largely spares the USDA’s major conservation programs, the Conservation Stewardship Program and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program from cuts. Before the bill’s release, 28 Democratic senators led by Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD) sent a letter to Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts (R-KS) and Ranking Member Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) urging them to avoid allowing any environmental policy riders in the Farm Bill. The House’s version of the Farm Bill stalled after it failed a vote in mid-May.

Climate Solutions Caucus: Three House Republicans, Rep. Erik Paulsen (R-MN), Rep. Peter Roskam (R-IL) and Rep. Tom MacArthur (R-NJ), have joined the Climate Solutions Caucus. All of these congressmen represent moderate districts and are vulnerable to losing their re-election bids. The Climate Solutions Caucus is a bipartisan group of lawmakers that examines climate policy. Environmental groups have criticized the Climate Solutions Caucus for not producing new legislation.

Other legislative updates of interest:

  • The House voted 408-2 to pass the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) (H.R. 8) June 6. The House version of WRDA covers water infrastructure policy and the activities of the Army Corps Division of Civil Works. This bill has remained largely bipartisan and noncontroversial.
  • The House overwhelmingly voted to pass four noncontroversial natural resources bills. The Camp Nelson Heritage National Monument Act (H.R. 5655), introduced by Rep. Andy Barr (R-KY), establishes Kentucky’s first national monument, the Camp Nelson Heritage National Monument. Camp Nelson served as a depot for the Union Army during the Civil War. The Susquehanna National Heritage Area Act (H.R 2991), introduced by Rep. Lloyd Smucker (R-PA), establishes the Susquehanna National Heritage Area in Pennsylvania. The North Country Scenic Trail Route Adjustment Act (H.R. 1026) from Rep. Rick Nolan (D-MN) revises the route of the North Country National Scenic Trail and extends the trail to connect with the Appalachian Trail. The Route 66 National Historic Trail Designation Act (H.R. 801), introduced by Rep. Darin LaHood (R-IL), designates 2,400 miles of trails from Chicago to Santa Monica, CA as the Route 66 National Historic Trail.
  • The House Natural Resources Committee voted to approve the Desert Tortoise Conservation Plan Expansion Act (H.R. 5597)along party lines. Rep. Chris Stewart (R-UT) introduced this bill to allow 4 miles of highway to be built in Utah’s Red Cliffs National Conservation Area, in exchange for adding 6,800 acres of desert tortoise habitat to the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve.
  • Rep. Don McEachin (D-VA) and Rep. Walter Jones (R-NC) introduced the Defend Our Coast Act (H.R. 6008). This bill removes federal waters along the mid-Atlantic coastline from oil and gas exploration.
  • Rep. Madeleine Z. Bordallo (D-Guam) along with a group of 13 bipartisan co-sponsors from Florida, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and the Northern Mariana Islands introduced the Coral Reef Conservation Act. The bill supports NOAA’s coral reef program and establishes grant programs for coral research, management and monitoring programs.
  • The Migratory Bird Framework and Hunting Opportunities for Veterans Act (H.R. 6013), introduced by House Natural Resources Chairman Rob Bishop (R-UT), extends the federal duck hunting season by four days in January and creates “special duck hunting days” for youth, active duty military personnel and veterans. A companion bill, S. 2942, has been introduced in the Senate.

Executive Branch

Arctic National Wildlife Refuge: Two Alaska Native corporations and a small oil services firm have taken the first step toward drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge by applying to complete seismic testing in the area next winter. Seismic testing would determine the quantity and location of oil in the area. Documents obtained by The Washington Post show that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service called the application “not adequate” and criticized the firms for not providing enough information on the effects of seismic testing on wildlife and conditions in the refuge. The local Bureau of Land Management office said that the permit application is under review.

Forest Service: Forest Service interim Chief Vicki Christiansen appeared before both the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee and the House Natural Resources Committee the week of June 4. Christiansen told legislators that the agency plans to sell 3.4 billion board-feet of timber, representing a 17 percent increase over the agency’s 2017 harvest and the largest timber harvest in 20 years. In the next few years, the agency plans to increase it’s timber harvest to 4 billion board-feet a year. The volume of timber harvested from National Forests has hovered around two to three million board-feet a year since 1994. In the 1980s, the agency harvested around 10 million-board feet a year. 

After questioning from Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), Christiansen revealed that the agency is working to loosen the Forest Service’s Roadless Area Conservation Rule in Alaska, potentially opening new areas of Tongass National Forest to logging.

EPA: The EPA announced that it is soliciting public comments on potential reforms to the way that it considers cost and benefits while making regulations under the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act and other environmental laws. Conservatives have complained that the EPA overestimated the benefits of actions like the Clean Power Plan during the Obama administration. This appears to an attempt to address that complaint.

National Science Foundation: A report from the National Science Board examines National Science Foundation (NSF)’s operating and maintenance spending and recommends more flexible management of the agency’s major research equipment and facilities spending account. The report’s three major conclusions are 1) NSF should continue to enhance agency-level ownership of the research portfolio, 2) the NSF and NSB should re-examine what percentage of the agency’s budget should go to research infrastructure and 3) NSB and NSF should develop model funding and governance schemes for partnerships at the agency, interagency and international levels.

Columbia River Treaty: The U.S. and Canada met the week of May 29 to begin negotiations on the Columbia River Treaty. The treaty was designed to reduce flooding and improve hydropower operations in the area. The original treaty was signed in 1964 and will expire in 2024. Native American tribes and environmentalists have insisted that a new treaty should better consider the survival of fish species in the river. Courts have repeatedly ruled that dam operators must release more water from dams to protect endangered salmon and steelhead. The U.S. and Canada will meet again to continue these discussions in August.

National Park Service: The National Park Service’s Pacific West Regional Office will leave its downtown San Francisco, CA office and relocate its 150 employees to a vacant NPS building in Vancouver, WA by 2021. The Pacific West Regional Office oversees 60 National Parks on the West Coast and in the Pacific. Officials say that the move will save the agency $3.8 million a year in rent and salary and benefit costs. Congress has to give final approval to this plan.

Top Park Service Official to Retire: Dan Wenk, the superintendent of Yellowstone National Park, announced he will retire in August 2018. The announcement comes after the Interior Department proposed shuffling 35 top officials, including Wenk, in April. In an interview with E&E News, Wenk said that he felt that the proposed change was “punitive” and that he was not given an explanation for why the Interior Department wanted him to move to the Park Service’s National Capital Region office. Wenk also said that he had clashed with Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke over bison management but did not believe that those disagreements led to his reassignment.

Isle Royale Wolves: The National Park Service officially approved a plan to relocate 20-30 wolves to Isle Royale National Park in Michigan. Currently, only two wolves remain in the area — a decrease from a peak population of around 50 individuals in the 1950s. The park service’s Midwest Regional Director Cam Sholly said that the translocations are necessary to prevent overpopulation of moose on the island. Climate change makes it increasingly unlikely that the wolves will be able to cross Lake Superior on winter ice and naturally replenish their population.


Methane Rule: The 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals declined an appeal from the states of California and New Mexico and environmental groups to revive the 2016 Obama-era “methane rule” which restricts emissions of methane on federal lands. The ruling ultimately maintains the status quo until the 10th Circuit court finishes its review of arguments in the case. Currently, some aspects of the methane rule are already in effect and while others are on hold based on an April court ruling.

“Two-for-one” Executive Order: The attorneys general of California and Oregon have filed a challenge to President Trump’s 2017 Executive Order that requires federal agencies to repeal two regulations for every new regulation an agency issues. In the suit, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra and Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum argue that this executive order harms public health and the environment and prevents agencies from enforcing laws like the Clean Air Act, as they are required to do by Congress.


California: Governor Jerry Brown (D) signed two bills that require cities, water districts and large agricultural districts to set annual strict water budgets by 2022. If water providers do not meet their goals, they will face fines of $1,000 a day or $10,000 a day during drought emergencies. Governor Brown said that permanent water restrictions are necessary to prepare for “the next drought and our changing environment.”

Pennsylvania: The Pennsylvania House of Representatives passed a bill that exempts the state’s conventional oil and gas industry from environmental regulations established by the state government in 2012. Among other provisions, the bill prevents local government from regulating oil and gas activity and removes requirements for companies that impair water supplies to restore them. Governor Tom Wolf (D) opposes this legislation and the legislation has not advanced in the state Senate.

Utah: The Utah Division of Wildlife Resources approved a plan to reintroduce 50 desert bighorn sheep to the Mineral Mountains in southern Utah. The state agency aims to establish a herd of 175 bighorn sheep. Ranchers fear that the wild bighorn sheep could spread disease to domestic sheep grazing on adjacent public lands, while sportsmen’s groups praised the decision for expanding hunting opportunities

Scientific Community

National Academies: The National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine (NAS) announced that they are moving toward adopting a policy to allow the organizations to expel members who have committed harassment or other misconduct. Now, NAS’s governance council will discuss the changes at its next meeting, and the full NAS membership may vote on the policy next April. Over 3,000 people have signed an online petition asking NAS to remove harassers from the organization’s membership.


Horizon Europe: The European Commission (EC) is unveiling its plans for a 20 billion euros ($23.3 billion) increase in its next seven-year budget plan for the years 2021 through 2027. The plan will replace the current Horizon 2020 program and is called Horizon Europe. The plan creates a new agency focused on fostering innovation in Europe and increases funding for defense research from 90 million euros to 4.1 billion euros. On June 7, the EC announced that any nation that meets to-be-determined criteria is welcome to join the program for a fee, but these countries will not have “decisional power.” The UK has expressed interest in participating in Horizon Europe post-Brexit.

Chile: Chile’s Congress passed legislation to create a dedicated science ministry, making the Chile the sixth with a science agency in Latin America. Scientists in the country celebrated the move and are hopeful that it will improve science funding programs in the country.

“The US is Being Left in the Dust on Amphibian Disease Prevention”: In May, Canada banned the importation of salamanders, newts and mudpuppies to prevent the spread of Batrachochytrium salamandrivous (Bsal), a deadly fungal disease that has caused large mortalities of salamanders. The European Union and the UK have also recently imposed strict quarantine measures for the salamander and newt trade. A proposed USFWS regulation to prevent salamander imports and interstate trade under the Lacey has been stalled since January 2016.

UK Air Pollution Plan: The government of the United Kingdom released a draft plan to reduce air pollution in the country in late May. The plan includes a goal to reduce the number of people breathing air with concentrations of fine particulates larger than 2.5 microns wide by half by 2025. The plan also aims to reduce ammonia emissions through reducing fertilizer use. The final plan will be released in early 2019.

Federal Register Opportunities

Opportunity for comment: The EPA has extended the comment period for its proposed rule “Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science” to August 17, 2018. The EPA will also hold a public hearing on this rule in Washington, DC July 17. ESA submitted a public comment requesting that the agency extend the comment period and issued a press release expressing concern about this proposed rule.

Public Meetings, many of which are live-streamed: 

Opportunities for Public Comment and Nominations:

Visit this page on ESA’s blog for updates on opportunities from the Federal Register, including upcoming meetings and regulations open for public comment.