protecting our way of life.
Our work is guided by the results in the Bristol Bay Regional Visioning Project, a comprehensive project outlining a sustainable future that honors our traditional values and way of life. As a political division of our member tribal governments, our work is primarily focused in three areas:
Tribal consultation with government agencies on issues affecting our Native way of life,
Grassroots organizing in the local, statewide, and national arena and
Youth Empowerment and Organizing in the Bristol Bay region.
We work to ensure the voices of Bristol Bay’s tribal citizens are reaching the decision makers, elected leadership and federal agencies that make critical decisions affecting our communities. We also engage in grassroots organizing in the Bristol Bay region and beyond, ensuring that the public is engaged in and aware of the large-scale mining issues affecting Bristol Bay. Another important component of our work is helping to prepare the future leaders of Bristol Bay - our youth. UTBB’s Youth Empowerment Project strives to help train young leaders to become effective advocates for indigenous people, environmental justice and a sustainable future in Bristol Bay.
fighting the good fight since 2010.
In 2010, nine federally-recognized Alaska Native tribes, joined by commercial & sport fishermen, petitioned the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to pursue measures under the Clean Water Act’s Section 404(c) to protect Bristol Bay’s salmon and prohibit the development of all large-scale hard-rock mines in the Bristol Bay Watershed. In response to their request, the EPA initiated a scientific study, looking at the potential impacts that large-scale mining could have on Bristol Bay and its salmon populations. In January 2014, after three years of research, and two scientific peer reviews, the EPA released its final watershed assessment, concluding that a mine like Pebble could result in: loss of salmon habitat (rivers, lakes, wetlands), degradation of the ecosystem (water quality, contamination), and the risk of an environmental disaster. At the continued urging of Alaskans, the EPA initiated Section 404(c) as a way to take proactive measures to limit certain mining activities in the Bristol Bay watershed - specifically activities that would involve disposing high volumes of dredge and fill material (i.e.: mining waste rock and tailings) into Bristol Bay’s sensitive salmon habitat.
After the release of a draft determination and public comment period in 2014, the EPA issued the Proposed Determination to enact Section 404(c) and provide protections for the Bristol Bay watershed, upon which the Pebble Limited Partnership (PLP) filed a series of lawsuits accusing the EPA of reaching their decision unlawfully.
From late 2014 to 2017, EPA and Pebble were tied up in litigation, preventing the EPA from filing a Final Determination. In May 2017, EPA entered into a settlement agreement with the Pebble Limited Partnership to resolve that litigation. Terms of the settlement included PLP dropping the lawsuit and EPA initiating the withdrawal of the Section 404(c) recommended determination. However, in early 2018 after the EPA received over one million comments in favor of upholding Bristol Bay protections, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt announced that the EPA would suspend the withdrawal of the 404(c) Proposed Determination.
After the settlement, and just before the new year, the Pebble Partnership entered the permitting process by filing a permit application with the Army Corps of Engineers to build a mine at the headwaters of Bristol Bay. Despite this move, it is encouraging to know that EPA’s Section 404(c) authority is still on the table, as the proposed Pebble Mine will generate up to 10 billion tons of toxic mine waste that will have to be treated in perpetuity (that means forever). Mine waste disposal in the Bristol Bay watershed is a direct threat to the Yup’ik, Dena’ina, and Alutiq culture and traditional way of life, as well as the tremendous wild salmon habitat that supports their culture and the Bristol Bay fishery - providing the world with a healthy and sustainable source of wild salmon that notably makes up 40% of the global sockeye supply. The salmon fishery is also the economic engine of the region, generating an estimated $1.5 billion in revenue each year and supporting over 14,000 jobs.
a brief history on Pebble Mine.
Bristol Bay has been fighting the proposed Pebble Mine for nearly two decades. Although the Pebble West deposit was discovered in the 1980s, the prospect of a mine at that site became a real threat when Northern Dynasty, a junior Canadian company, acquired the state leases to Pebble from Teck Cominco in 2001 and began pursuing a mine.
With no other revenue or projects, Northern Dynasty began a push to explore the deposit and take steps toward development - raising eyebrows and causing concern throughout the region. In its early years, the company was successful in lobbying the State of Alaska to change the area’s land use plan so that it was open for mineral development. In 2007, Northern Dynasty formed the Pebble Limited Partnership with mining giant Anglo American, which provided much-needed revenue to continue exploration and feasibility studies. As the project plan grew, local concerns and opposition increased.
It became clear in the beginning that Northern Dynasty was willing to cut corners in initial exploration and land use activity at the mine site. The Pebble Partnership conducted work that affected mammals that once traversed the land and disregarded regulations, which led to waste material left on site, and even racked up state fines for unpermitted water withdrawals. As the partnership grew and gained financial support from additional companies, tribes took note that the foreign company was not acting as a responsible steward of the land. In response, Bristol Bay entities began passing formal resolutions opposing the proposed Pebble Mine. Nunamta Alukestai, the first regional organization to oppose the project, was formed in 2007 to represent the village corporations that opposed the project.
In 2010, six Tribes petitioned the EPA to provide permanent protections for the region by applying section 404(c) of Clean Water Act. The EPA responded by launching the Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment in 2011.
The wide-spread opposition did not go unnoticed. In 2011, Mitsubishi became the first big company to walk away from the project, followed by Anglo American (2013) and Rio Tinto (2015). At the same time, opposition was gaining traction; United Tribes of Bristol Bay was formed in 2013, marking the second local organization formed to work alongside fishing and environmental partners elsewhere in Alaska and the Lower 48 on protecting the region’s pristine land and water.
Meanwhile, the EPA’s peer-reviewed watershed assessment was published in 2014. It concluded that “the mining of the Pebble deposit at any of these sizes, even the smallest, could result in significant and unacceptable adverse effects on ecologically important streams, wetlands, lakes, and ponds and the fishery areas they support.” The proposed determination called for protections due to the uniqueness of the area that would prevent large-scale hard-rock mining at the headwaters of the watershed. During the comment periods that followed, more than a million Americans weighed in supporting the proposed protections for the region.
Unfortunately, that effort was stalled in court and the protections were never put in place. Pebble sued the EPA, delaying the process for several years. Ultimately, the science behind the Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment was upheld in a 2017 out-of-court settlement, but the agency’s ability to put protections into place was delayed. Pebble then filed its first development permit in late 2017, the 404 (c) Clean Water Act Dredge and Fill permit, kickstarting the federal environmental review process, which is still underway today.
Bristol Bay tribes and partners have continued the work to protect the watershed and all it sustains through the federal environmental review process and in other arenas.