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EPA vetoes Pebble Mine looming over Bristol Bay salmon fishery

An aerial view of Bristol Bay.
Mark Titus
The Wild/KNKX file
An aerial view of Bristol Bay, Alaska. In 2019, Seattle director Mark Titus' The Wild: How Do You Save What You Love? premiered at the Seattle International Film Festival. The documentary focuses on the fight to protect Bristol Bay alongside Titus' personal story.

The Environmental Protection Agency made a rare move under the Clean Water Act that effectively vetoes the so-called Pebble Mine in Alaska.

The proposed mine would take gold and copper from open pits near Bristol Bay. It's 1500 miles away, but its salmon fishery has made it hugely important to many people in the Puget Sound region.

KNKX reporter Bellamy Pailthorp joined KNKX All Things Considered host Emil Moffatt to explain why this veto is such a big deal. Listen to their discussion above or read the transcript below.


Note: This transcript is provided for reference only and may contain typos. Please confirm accuracy before quoting.

KNKX All Things Considered host Emil Moffatt: Big news from the Environmental Protection Agency. Today, it made a rare move under the Clean Water Act that effectively vetoes the so-called Pebble Mine in Alaska. The proposed mine would take gold and copper from open pits near Bristol Bay. It's 1500 miles away from the Puget Sound region, but it salmon fishery has made it hugely important to many people here can. Reporter Bellamy Pailthorp is with me in the studio to talk about it. Hi, Bellamy.

KNKX Environment reporter Bellamy Pailthorp: Hey, Emil.

Moffatt: So why is such a big deal for people here?

Pailthorp: Well, in a word, salmon. Legendary sockeye, a fishery that just keeps getting better, ironically, under climate change. And it's in a very, very pristine area. There are basically no roads there, and it draws tons of sports fishermen. Also, increasingly, it's become critical for the commercial fishermen here. I spoke this morning with Ellie Kinley, traditional name, Tamas. She's a Lummi fisherman from a family of fishermen.

Two men wearing orange rain gear are surrounded by fish in the back of a boat that's tipping slightly to one side.
Ellie Kinley
Luke Kinley and Joe Solomon fishing with gillnets in 2017 on the Nushagak River which flows into Bristol Bay.

Ellie Kinley (clip): "And my late husband, he told my boys, you know, if you want to keep fishing for a living, you're going to have to include Alaska in your plan, because our fishery here in the Puget Sound is so limited, we literally get a good fishery once every four years."

Pailthorp: Now, Kinley serves on her tribe's natural Resource and Fish Commission. She's also been involved in the Lummi Sovereignty Treaty Protection Office, and she was part of a group of Coast Salish tribes that signed a declaration in Seattle three years ago in solidarity with the United Tribes of Bristol Bay who have been fighting to stop the Pebble Mine for nearly two decades now. And the proclamation basically says, we're all salmon people, we're connected. We're with you in this fight.

Moffatt: Now, the opposition to the mine and the passion for Bristol Bay goes back even further than that, right?

Pailthorp: Yeah. I mean, I first covered it in 2012. One of the hearings held by the EPA, was at a federal building here in Seattle. And it was packed, literally overflowing crowds for a congressional hearing, you know, or EPA hearing, literally people standing around waiting for their turn to talk. Placards. Lots of demonstrators outside. At that time, I learned that there were more than 900 permit holders for fishing in Bristol Bay that were based in Washington. As of 2021, the latest numbers, there are about 750 permit holders. But remember, each of those Bristol Bay permits has a whole crew working under it. So people helping with gear and boats, that is literally thousands of people whose livelihood at least partially depends on this fishery directly on the water. There's also a big processing contingent here in Seattle as well.

Moffatt: And so the impact closer to home, you walk into a restaurant here and see salmon from Bristol Bay on the menu. It's pretty popular, right?

Pailthorp: It definitely is. And actually, chefs and foodies have been an important part of, you know, getting the word out about this campaign as well. Seattle foodie, restaurateur extraordinaire Tom Douglas, he is quoted in a news release today saying nearly every chef knows the difference between serving salmon and serving wild Bristol Bay salmon. So he is celebrating this decision along with everyone else.

Moffatt: So this veto from the EPA, this is a rare thing, right?

Pailthorp: It is. We're calling it a "veto power." It's using an obscure part of the Clean Water Act. And incidentally, it was the Seattle based head of Region 10 of the EPA, Casey Sixkiller, who recommended this idea to the head of the EPA. EPA Administrator Michael Regan talked about it on yesterday afternoon under embargo. And he said in 30 years, the agency has only used this kind of determination three times. He said that it rests on solid science, though, and that there have been plenty of other projects moving forward in Alaska. So he said this was, you know, he was emphasizing this is a very narrow focus and by no means, he said, is this meant to send any signals beyond this specific project. So obviously, they've done their homework being very careful there.

Moffatt: And with about 30 seconds to go. What are we hearing from the company behind this proposed mine, as well as opponents of this decision?

Pailthorp: Yeah, well, the Alaska governor, Mike Dunleavy, has been a real ally with the Canadian mining company. And I think, you know, we're waiting to hear exactly what they're going to do, but it's likely that there would be lawsuits. And I think everyone is expecting to continue some battle in court. You know, the tribes of Bristol Bay held a call this morning and they were really celebrating the decision, but also saying we need to get our our ducks in order. We need, you know, some kind of congressional protection protecting fish habitat and fish specifically in this area of Alaska to prevent this from ever happening again.

Moffatt: Bellamy Pailthorp is our environment reporter here at KNKX, thanks for your time.

Pailthorp: Thank you.

Bellamy Pailthorp covers the environment for KNKX with an emphasis on climate justice, human health and food sovereignty. She enjoys reporting about how we will power our future while maintaining healthy cultures and livable cities. Story tips can be sent to
Emil Moffatt joined KNKX in October 2022 as All Things Considered host/reporter. He came to the Puget Sound area from Atlanta where he covered the state legislature, the 2021 World Series and most recently, business and technology as a reporter for WABE. Contact him at