Advocacy Conservation

Defending Protections for Bristol Bay

Bristol Bay Orgs & TU file briefs in State of Alaska Lawsuit Against EPA

In January 2023, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) finalized Clean Water Act 404(c) safeguards for the headwaters of Bristol Bay, Alaska. These protections prohibit the proposed Pebble Mine and were widely celebrated by Bristol Bay tribes, the commercial fishing industry, anglers and hunters, and numerous local communities that sought these protections for more than a decade. But these protections quickly came under attack this past summer when the State of Alaska took the unusual move of filing a lawsuit against the EPA directly in the U.S. Supreme Court instead of in federal District Court, as would be customary in a case like this.

This month, the United Tribes of Bristol Bay (UTBB), Bristol Bay Native Corporation (BBNC) and TU filed amicus briefs with the U.S. Supreme Court, asking the court to reject the State of Alaska’s atypical lawsuit. Typically, cases only reach the U.S. Supreme Court, if at all, after they are brought in federal District Court and appealed through a federal Court of Appeals.

Bristol Bay. Photo by Fly Out Media.

The amicus briefs submitted by UTBB, BBNC and TU provide important background context and legal arguments for why the U.S. Supreme Court should decline hearing the case and why the State of Alaska should follow the normal procedure of first suing the EPA in federal District Court.

“Governor Dunleavy is completely out of touch with the people he claims to represent with this outrageous lawsuit. Time and time again, the vast majority of Alaskans have called on our elected leaders to stop the proposed Pebble Mine, but Governor Dunleavy is clearly on a reckless mission to defend this dead project regardless of the law, science and cost to Alaskans,” said Alannah Hurley, executive director of the United Tribes of Bristol Bay.

Sockeye Salmon in Bristol Bay. Photo by Fly Out Media.

Trout Unlimited added additional legal details for the court’s consideration, including the fact that the State had the opportunity to raise their concerns in previous lawsuits and didn’t.

“While Alaska would apparently prefer to exploit Bristol Bay’s mineral deposits over its fishing and related industries, its alleged injury from the EPA’s determination would only be real if the state one day permitted the mining project, which it has not done and may never do,” said Austin Williams, director of federal relations for Trout Unlimited

It is clear that Governor Dunleavy will go to extreme lengths, including spending hundreds of thousands of dollars of public funding, to prop up a foreign-owned mine that Alaskan’s have said time and again they don’t want. Even if the U.S. Supreme Court rejects the State of Alaska’s lawsuit and requires the State to pursue its claims in lower court, these recent court filings are just one step in what will likely be a long legal battle to defend the important safeguards for clean water and healthy fisheries so many people have worked hard to finalize.

Bristol Bay. Photo by Fly Out Media.

This is not the first time TU defended Bristol Bay’s world-class waters and fisheries in court. In 2019, TU sued the EPA when it inexplicably withdrew proposed protections for Bristol Bay’s headwaters. While the District Court initially dismissed TU’s lawsuit on procedural grounds, TU appealed and ultimately won at the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in 2021. This victory reinstated the proposed protections and got the Clean Water Act 404(c) process back on track, leading to the final protections the EPA implemented earlier this year.

Despite a majority of Alaskans opposing the proposed Pebble Mine and the overwhelming weight of science demonstrating that Bristol Bay’s headwaters are no place to build a massive open pit mine, the State of Alaska is again putting foreign mining company profits over the best interests of Alaskans and our irreplaceable waters, fish and wildlife.

Salmon smokehouse. Photo by Ben Knight

Trout Unlimited, along with its tribal partners, fishing lodge and guide allies and commercial fishing partners are committed to preventing the proposed Pebble Mine and any other incompatible industrial development from threatening Bristol Bay’s world-class wild salmon runs and the communities that rely on them.

We won’t rest until these fisheries and waters are protected permanently. By standing together in the face of continued threats to clean water, communities and healthy fisheries, we demonstrate our resolve to safeguard this incredible landscape for generations to come.

Join us: Ask decision-makers to establish permanent protections for the Bristol Bay watershed