Travels to the to the tiny Yup’ik village of Igiugig in the Bristol Bay region, to Utqiagvik at the northern tip of Alaska and to Eklutna, the Dena’ina community that is the only Native village within Alaska’s largest city, have showcased the range of environmental challenges facing Alaska’s Indigenous people, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency said on Thursday.
EPA Administrator Michael Regan’s trip to Alaska, which included a stop in Fairbanks on Friday, is part of a national EPA Journey to Justice tour that started in 2021 in Mississippi and is drawing attention to the way marginalized communities suffer disproportionate environmental harms.
“For decades, we all know that too many communities, especially our Indigenous communities, our communities of color, have suffered injustice from inadequate water infrastructure, high levels of environmental pollution and the worst impact of climate change,” Regan said at a news conference held Thursday afternoon at the Alaska Native Heritage Center in Anchorage.
Among the top subjects of Regan’s trip is legacy contamination of Native-owned land. Over the years since the 1971 passage of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, several of the Native corporations created by that law have been conveyed lands tainted by contaminants, typically leftover from military, mining or industrial operations from several decades in the past.
After Sen. Lisa Murkowski chaired a field hearing in Unalaska on the subject a year ago, the EPA stepped in to be the lead agency addressing that land contamination. In May, the EPA launched a program to distribute $20 million in grants to help Alaska tribal entities address land contamination. And on Friday, the agency announced the first three grants through that program: $1 million to the Ounalashka Corp., $1 million to the Tyonek Native Corp. and $582,345 to the Ukpeaġvik Iñupiat Corp.
Attention to that topic during Tuesday’s visit to Utqiagvik and the period leading up to then is appreciated, said Kate Wolgemuth, program and government affairs manager for Voice of the Arctic Iñupiat.
“These sites are both directly in our communities and on the lands and waters where we hunt, fish and gather to feed our people. The engagement with your agency over the past month has been heartening,” Wolgemuth told Regan at the news conference.
Protection of salmon runs has been another theme of the trip.
In Igiugig, where he ate Bristol Bay salmon and caught a rainbow trout when he visited on Monday, Regan said he saw how important it was for the EPA in January to invoke a little-used provision in the Clean Water Act to block development of the controversial Pebble copper and gold mine.
“What I’ve learned is what I already know, which is the Pebble project was not the right project. It put too much in jeopardy,” he said. As for local concerns that other mines may be developed in the region, “we will continue to evaluate projects as they come along, project by project, to be sure that we don’t do any harm to the bay, which is a national treasure.”
The Dunleavy administration objected to the EPA action on Pebble, and in July made an unusual appeal directly to the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn it. But Regan said he believes the facts and science support the agency’s decision on Pebble.
“I feel very strongly that we made the right decision. I am very confident in the legal capabilities at EPA and the Department of Justice to defend the decision,” he said.
In Eklutna, which he visited earlier on Thursday, Regan said he learned about efforts to restore the Eklutna River and its salmon run. Though an old dam was removed in 2017 and 2018, river flow and salmon numbers have not yet returned to normal.
Climate change has come up during his Alaska tour, he said, notably with students at Barrow High School who expressed concerns about reduced sea ice and accelerated erosion.
“When we think about the disproportionate impact of pollution and of climate change, there is a common denominator,” Regan said. “And that is indigenous communities, people of color low-income communities, they’re on the front lines of all of these impacts. But they are in the least-best position to address these impacts.”
Another subject that spurred what he described as “very serious” conversations was pollution from PFAS compounds, per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances that are found in a wide variety of industrial and consumer projects. Called “forever chemicals” because they are extremely difficult to break down, PFAS compounds are linked to numerous health risks.
“These forever chemicals are polluting our communities all across the country,” he said.
The issue is of special concern to him, Regan said. He referred to one of the nation’s worst PFAS cases, the contamination of the Cape Fear watershed in his home state, North Carolina, where he contended with the problem in his former position as head of the state’s Department of Environmental Quality.
The EPA in March proposed new PFAS drinking water standards, but many people believe the agency is moving too slowly, Regan said.
“Of course, I would have liked to have had this problem solved yesterday,” he said. However, “we are fighting very powerful companies and so it’s very important that we get the science right and we design our regulations correctly, because they will be contested in court, and we want to prevail.”
Action to curtail PFAS contamination has drawn pushback in Alaska. Gov. Mike Dunleavy last week vetoed a bill that would have phased out its use of PFAS-containing firefighting foams, currently the main source of PFAS contamination in the state. Dunleavy cited a lack of replacement firefighting material in some communities.
At the end of his news conference, Regan was confronted by an activist about ConocoPhillips’ huge Willow oil project on the North Slope. The Biden administration in March approved development of the prospect, estimated to hold 600 million barrels of oil.
“I think you’re well aware that Willow was a decision for the Department of Interior, not EPA,” Regan said in response. “Nevertheless, I believe that the Department of Interior and the president made that decision because they were legally obligated to do so. My perspective on Willow is: I am a regulator. And so as I design regulations to control emissions like methane and volatile organic chemicals and compounds and others, we’re designing very tight regulations so that we can protect our natural resources.”
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