EPA May Allow Mine Near Pristine Alaska Bay

(CN) – The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and a mining company agreed Friday to dismiss ongoing litigation over permitting of a proposed gold and copper mine in Alaska’s Bristol Bay Watershed.

With a new presidential administration and more industry-friendly EPA leadership, the Justice Department and Pebble Limited Partnership asked an Alaska federal judge to dismiss litigation that has been ongoing in a tit-for-tat manner since 2014.

The settlement provides Pebble an opportunity to apply for a Clean Water Act permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers before the EPA may move forward with its permit process to specify limits on the disposal of certain material from a potential Pebble mine.

Mineral developers say the area holds the “world’s largest undeveloped deposit of copper ore” and “would create 15,000 jobs, contribute $64 billion to U.S. gross domestic product and generate approximately $18 billion in federal, state and local tax revenues.”

In a statement, EPA chief Scott Pruitt said the agreement give Pebble a fair shot at nabbing a permit.

“We are committed to due process and the rule of law, and regulations that are ‘regular’,” Pruitt said. “We understand how much the community cares about this issue, with passionate advocates on all sides.

“The agreement will not guarantee or prejudge a particular outcome, but will provide Pebble a fair process for their permit application and help steer EPA away from costly and time-consuming litigation. We are committed to listening to all voices as this process unfolds.”

Bristol Bay Native Corp., one of several Native organizations and watershed advocates that began protesting in earnest once they learned Pebble’s permit application was imminent in 2014, had asked the EPA to intervene at the time. The Bristol Bay watershed is a critical spawning habitat for the world’s largest salmon run and a significant source of income for Alaskans, tribes and commercial fisherman.

Pebble said for years it would file its permit application, but never did. Under the Obama administration, the EPA worked on watershed assessments in preparation for an application that never came. Once Pebble found it likely the EPA would not approve the permit it sued, then said it wanted to resolve the lawsuit before applying for a permit.

Now more than three years later, the agreement allows the EPA to use “use its scientific assessment regarding the Bristol Bay Watershed without limitation,” the agency said, although it is not clear how it will be used.

For its part, Pebble agreed to drop various lawsuits and fee requests, and not file any more Freedom of Information Act requests for the foreseeable future, according to the EPA.

The EPA will begin withdrawing its proposed regulation and will hold off for four years on any follow-up to its proposed determination, “or until the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers issues its final environmental impact statement, whichever comes first.”

The four-year limit follows a federal standard known as the “Meese Rule,” requested by the Justice Department to avoid a settlement that constrains federal discretionary authority. In exchange, Pebble will be required to file its permit application within 2 ½ years.

Pruitt said in his statement that the agency is committed to allowing the process to move forward, but isn’t prejudging the outcome.

This follows multiple motions to the court for stays as Pebble executives and mine proponents waited for new hope under the resource extraction-friendly Trump administration. Even as this settlement allows the process to move forward it will take years for the permit application to move through the process that requires federal review and public input. It may even extend beyond the next presidential election.

During the previous delays, Pebble lost some key investor funding. The sole current owner, Northern Dynasty Minerals, said it is planning a smaller mine that will require new data and infrastructure plans as well as new investors.

On the other side, Bristol Bay Native issued a statement expressing its “disappointment in EPA and Trump administration’s” decision.

“Pebble mine will risk thousands of long-held American jobs and Bristol Bay’s sustainable wild salmon fishery for the benefit of a foreign mining company,” Jason Metrokin, CEO of Bristol Bay Native, said.

“Today’s actions are also far from the end of the story for the proposed Determination. There will be a formal process before EPA can unwind its proposal and BBNC and the people of Bristol Bay will make our voices heard during this process.”

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