In reversal, Environmental Protection Agency clears path for mine in Alaska
The Environmental Protection Agency, under the direction of its climate-denying head, Scott Pruitt, has taken a first step toward opening up a region in Alaska to copper and gold mining that Obama-era regulators had sought to keep from being developed.
In 2014, the EPA increased environmental standards in southwestern Alaska’s Bristol Bay region under the Clean Water Act, invoking a seldom-used clause that prevented Pebble Limited Partnership, the mine’s developer, from applying for a permit to develop a mine there. The mine, in the headwaters of Bristol Bay — home to the largest sockeye salmon fishery in the world — could decimate the fishing industry that thrives there, as well as the subsistence fishing of Native Alaskan tribes.
“Indigenous people have have been fighting this fight for over a decade,” Alannah Hurley of the United Tribes of Bristol Bay, a coalition tribes in southwest Alaska, told VICE News. “Our people have been here for thousands of years. We continue to live off the land, the way our ancestors lived.”
“We’re not willing to risk our way of life, our fishery for this mine,” Hurley continued. “It’s scientific fact that this mine could decimate our way of life.”
The mine’s developers, Pebble Limited Partnership, sued the EPA under President Obama, claiming that the EPA had violated the Freedom of Information Act, that the determination was in violation of the Clean Water Act, and that the EPA colluded with outside groups to reach its determination. The suit settled Thursday in federal court in Alaska was one that concerned the collusion of outside groups.
Though the EPA is now open to considering an application from Pebble Partnership, the mine is still a ways from approval. In a statement on the EPA’s website, Pruitt said that the agency “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.”
There’s still a lengthy process ahead. The EPA will withdraw the rules it proposed in 2014, which will be subject to a period of public comment, and no action will be taken until the Army Corps of Engineers Issues its determination or for 48 months after the rules are rescinded — whichever comes first. And local businesses and environmental advocates are planning to mobilize in opposition to the mine — even preparing to lie in front of bulldozers, according to Alaska Dispatch News.
Senator Maria Cantwell of Washington State held a press conference Friday to oppose the EPA’s move. “President Trump’s administration is making an appalling mistake siding with these Canadian miners over American fishing jobs,” she said. Pebble’s parent company, Northern Dynasty Minerals Ltd., is based in Vancouver.
And though the mine is in Alaska, most of Washington State’s salmon fishing industry heads to Bristol Bay each summer. “Bristol Bay supports a $1.5 million dollar sockeye salmon fishery and 22,000 jobs throughout Washington and the other states in the Pacific Northwest,” Cantwell said Friday, flanked by fisherman at the Fisherman’s Terminal in Seattle. “Chances are, if you’re having dinner in the next few weeks at a seafood restaurant, you’re going to be having salmon that has been to Bristol Bay.”
Northern Dynasty Minerals’ stock prices skyrocketed after the election, due in part to hopes of a less stringent EPA under Trump. But investor excitement started to wane after a report from an investment firm claimed that the deposit was actually worthless because the upfront capital costs would make the mine commercially inviable. Several other companies have backed out of building the mine in recent years.
Still, executives are celebrating the EPA’s move. Ronald Thiessen, president and chief exec of Northern Dynasty Minerals, in a call with shareholders Friday thanked Pruitt and praised his “commitment to the rule of law,” according the New York Times.