Surprise move by EPA puts Pebble issue back on the table

Bristol Bay, Alaska.

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt has reversed a decision that suspended Clean Water Act protections, to allow for permitting for a massive copper, gold and molybdenum mine to be built in Southwest Alaska, putting the future of the Pebble mine in question.

Pruitt said his decision to suspend withdrawal of Section 404 (c ) came after hearing directly from stakeholders in the Bristol Bay watershed and other Alaskans, and that the EPA will solicit additional public comment on the potential impact of the mining application from the Pebble Limited Partnership. Section 404 (c ) authorizes the EPA to restrict or deny discharge of dredged or fill materials into federal waters, including wetlands, when it determines such disposal would have unacceptable adverse impact on various resources, including fisheries.

This decision neither deters or derails the application process now under way on the mine project, but their permit application must clear a high bar, because EPA believes the risk to Bristol Bay may be unacceptable, the EPA said in a statement issued on Jan. 26.

The Pebble Limited Partnership is the principal asset of Northern Dynasty Minerals Ltd, in Vancouver, British Columbia, a mineral exploration company that has already invested millions of dollars in the project. The firm’s president and chief executive officer, Ron Thiessen, said he expects the permitting process to “advance expeditiously” over the next few years.  The company expressed confidence in its ability to construct and operate a mine that meets required environmental standards.

Mine opponents, who contend that the Pebble project would adversely impact on salmon habitat, welcomed the EPA’s announcement saying the EPA deserves credit for keeping in place proposed restrictions for mining in Bristol Bay. The watershed is home to the world’s largest run of wild sockeye salmon, a resource critical to commercial, sport and subsistence harvesters as well as the area’s abundant wildlife.

“The threat of large scale mining in the watershed has caused far too much stress for far too long in the region” said Alaska Speaker of the House Bryce Edgmon, D-Dillingham. “This is a landmark decision for Bristol Bay that heartens our resolve to bring this fight to a close and ensure Bristol Bay is protected for generations to come,” he said.

Alaska Gov. Bill Walker praised the decision, saying he had shared with Pruitt his belief that the fisheries resource that has sustained generations of Alaskans must continue to do so in perpetuity, and Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, gave Pruitt kudos for taking a balanced approach to allowing Pebble to enter the permitting process, while noting EPA’s duty to protect the world class fisheries.

“Alaskans know the Pebble mine is the wrong mine in the wrong place because they trust independent science and have spent years publicly debating its cost and benefits,” said Norm Van Vactor, chief executive officer of the Bristol Bay Economic Development Corp. in Dillingham. “We cannot put at risk the thousands of American fishing jobs supported by Bristol Bay’s waters by allowing a foreign-owned company to build a massive mine at the bay’s headwaters.

Robert Heyano, president of United Tribes of Bristol Bay, heralded the announcement as another milestone for Bristol Bay, saying it shows the power of local people, speaking in a united voice that “can still be heard above the noise of today’s partisan politics.”

But Jason Metrokin president and chief executive officer of Bristol Bay Native Corp., and Ralph Anderson, president and chief executive officer of Bristol Bay Native Association, cautioned that the EPA’s latest decision is unlikely to end the debate over the mine.

Nevertheless, the decision will mean that any mine plan PLP pursues will have to meet a high standard and address the ‘unacceptable adverse impacts’ identified in the Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment and the proposed determination, they said.

United Fishermen of Alaska called the EPA decision “a clear setback” for the mine and one that renewed hope that protections harvesters have been asking for are back on the table at the federal level.

Fishermen should understand that the announcement does not offer permanent protections to Bristol Bay but that stakeholders will now have additional opportunity to weigh in on the proposed project, UFA said.

 

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Margaret Bauman is a veteran Alaska journalist focused on covering fisheries and environmental issues. Bauman has been writing for The Cordova Times since 2010. You can reach her at mbauman@thecordovatimes.com.