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EPA under Trump may allow massive Pebble Mine near Alaska’s Bristol Bay

The Pile River flows into Lake Iliamna, nursery of many sockeye salmon, in the Bristol Bay region of Alaska. The Pebble Mine would sit just above the lake.
The Pile River flows into Lake Iliamna, nursery of many sockeye salmon, in the Bristol Bay region of Alaska. The Pebble Mine would sit just above the lake.

FISHING -- The news seems to be rife with angles the Trump Administration is exploring to degrade natural resources that are priceless to hunters, anglers and other outdoorsmen. The decision does not greenlight the mine, but it opens the door to permitting.

Here's the latest in the salvo to perhaps the greatest salmon fishery region in the world:


WASHINGTON (AP)– The Trump administration settled a lawsuit Friday over the proposed development of a massive gold and copper mine at the headwaters of one of Alaska’s premier salmon fisheries.

The Environmental Protection Agency settled the long-running case with the Pebble Limited Partnership, agreeing to allow the Canadian-owned company to seek a federal permit to build its mine near Bristol Bay.

Pebble sued in federal court over what it claimed was EPA’s collusion with mine opponents to block the project, which a study shows could pose significant risk to salmon populations. A review by EPA’s inspector general found no evidence the agency acted improperly.

“We understand how much the community cares about this issue, with passionate advocates on all sides,” said Scott Pruitt, the EPA administrator. “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.”

According to court documents, the two sides had been exploring ways to resolve the case since August, when President Barack Obama was still in office.

The proposed mine for has been hotly debated for years, with environmental activists like actor Robert Redford opposing development and multinational jewelers saying they won’t use minerals mined from the Alaska prospect.

The dispute dates to 2014, following the release an EPA study that concluded large-scale mining in the Bristol Bay watershed posed significant risk to salmon and could adversely affect Alaska Natives in the region whose culture is built around salmon. Bristol Bay, in southwest Alaska, produces about half of the world’s sockeye salmon.

The study provided the basis for the EPA to invoke a rarely used process under the federal Clean Water Act that supporters of the proposed Pebble Mine feared could result in the project’s veto before it goes through the permitting process.

Northern Dynasty Minerals Ltd., which owns the Pebble partnership, accused EPA of being in cahoots with mine opponents with a predetermined goal of blocking the project.

EPA, in court documents, characterized Pebble’s claims as an effort to undermine its plan to protect parts of the Bristol Bay region from development.

While the EPA proposed restrictions on development, those restrictions were never finalized. A judge ordered the agency to stop work related to that process while the lawsuit was pending.

Officials for the Pebble Partnership argue EPA’s actions have been overreaching and expressed hope that it will get a fairer shake with new Trump administration than it believes it got under Obama.

Northern Dynasty has called the Pebble deposit “one of the greatest stores of mineral wealth ever discovered” – containing copper, gold, molybdenum and silver. It has been looking for a partner since 2013, when a subsidiary of London-based Anglo American PLC announced it was withdrawing from the project.

On Thursday, before any settlement was announced, representatives of tribal organizations and others in the Bristol Bay region expressed concern that protections they had been seeking could be wiped away and frustration that Pruitt had not reached out to them since taking office.

Norman Van Vactor, with the Bristol Bay Economic Development Corporation, said the next phase of challenges to the project could include additional legal fights and “standing in front of bulldozers.”

The inspector general for the EPA, which conducted an investigation following requests by the state, Northern Dynasty and others, last year found no evidence of bias in how the EPA conducted the study on potential mine impacts. It also concluded that the agency did not predetermine the study’s outcome.

The National Resource Defense Council today had the following response, excerpted from a blog posted by Taryn Kiekow Heimer, senior policy analyst:

EPA Settles Lawsuit: Puts Pebble Mine First, America Last

If the Trump administration’s strategy is to put a foreign mining company first—and America’s greatest wild salmon fishery dead last—then sadly it’s succeeding. Today EPA settled a lawsuit with Northern Dynasty Minerals—the Canadian junior mining company behind the proposed Pebble Mine in Bristol Bay, Alaska. The settlement has not yet been filed with the court, but according to EPA and Northern Dynasty press releases it will shelve an Obama-era Proposed Determination to protect Bristol Bay. EPA agrees it will start the process of withdrawing its Proposed Determination and Northern Dynasty Minerals agrees to dismiss the lawsuit.

EPA Administer Scott Pruitt claims the settlement is about providing Pebble a "fair process," but in reality it's putting Pebble Mine first and Bristol Bay second. If he is really serious about "listening to all voices as this process unfolds," then it’s time to listen to what the people of Alaska and Bristol Bay want. Spoiler alert: they do not want the Pebble Mine. More than 65 percent of Alaskans, 80 percent of Bristol Bay residents and Native communities, and 85 percent of commercial fishermen oppose the mine.

... The proposed Pebble Mine—and it’s 10 billion tons of mining waste at the headwaters of Bristol Bay—would risk it all.  The Pebble Mine would create only about 1,000 temporary mining jobs while threatening 14,000 American commercial and recreational fishery jobs in a $1.5 billion annual salmon fishery that can last indefinitely.  A three-year, twice peer reviewed scientific study concluded the Pebble Mine poses potentially “catastrophic” risks to the region.

Bristol Bay is too important—economically, environmentally, and culturally—to be sacrificed for the sake of a mine.  Which is why EPA issued a Proposed Determination under Section 404(c) of the Clean Water Act that would have imposed common sense restrictions on the mine.

The Trump administration’s willingness to set aside that Proposed Determination is a disaster—economic, environmental, and social. Instead of putting America first, it sells out a $1.5 billion annual fishery and 14,000 jobs for the profit of foreign investors. Instead of making America great, it risks America’s greatest wild salmon runs. And instead of protecting the commercial fishermen, sportsmen and Alaska Natives who voted for Trump, it prioritizes a foreign mining company.

To be clear, today’s decision does not greenlight the Pebble Mine. But it does open the door for Pebble to pursue permitting.

"If the Pebble Partnership seeks permits, the Trump administration will have an opportunity to get it right," NRDC says. "An opportunity to put fish and Bristol Bay first—and Pebble last."

Rich Landers
Rich Landers joined The Spokesman-Review in 1977. He is the Outdoors editor for the Sports Department writing and photographing stories about hiking, hunting, fishing, boating, conservation, nature and wildlife and related topics.

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