The Environmental Protection Agency scuttled proposed development restrictions Tuesday on an open-pit mine in the headwaters of Alaska’s Bristol Bay region, which sustains the largest sockeye salmon runs in the world.
The move by Chris Hladick, the EPA’s Seattle-based regional administrator, is part of a broader Trump administration push to proceed with a permitting review for the Pebble Mine, a world-class deposit of gold, molybdenum and copper that — due to its sensitive location — is among the most contested mineral-development projects in Alaska history.
The proposed restrictions date to the Obama administration, and would have sharply limited the amount of wetlands and salmon streams that could have been damaged by disposal of mine wastes. The developer’s CEO — Tom Collier of Pebble Partnership — hailed the EPA action Tuesday as removing a “cloud of uncertainty” by reversing “outrageous federal government overreach.”
“The restrictions would have precluded any meaningful mineral development in the region — period,” said Collier, who credited Alaska Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy with encouraging the EPA to abandon the proposal.
The Army Corps of Engineers is now undertaking a permitting review scheduled to be completed next year. State permitting would take another few years, which could enable the mine to begin producing ore by 2026, according to Collier.
The EPA action brought a bitter response from a wide-ranging coalition of passionate opponents that includes commercial fishermen from Washington and elsewhere that join in the summer sockeye harvests, sport anglers, seafood processors, recreation companies, Native groups and environmentalists.
“This comes as we are wrapping up the second largest-recorded salmon harvest in Bristol Bay of 42 million salmon and counting, to feed not only our people but the world. Our people will continue to do whatever it takes to stop this mine,” said Alannah Hurley, executive director of the United Tribes of Bristol Bay.
Pebble was first proposed more than a decade ago, and Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Washington, a longtime critic of the mine, on Tuesday accused the EPA of a “reckless action” that would threaten the Bristol Bay watershed and the fisheries and maritime economy it supports.
During the Obama administration, the EPA undertook a major review of the mine’s environmental impacts in response to a 2011 request from six Bristol Bay tribes. In 2014, the Seattle regional office used the authority vested by the Clean Water Act to propose tight restrictions that included a cap of 1,100 acres of wetlands, lakes and ponds that could be lost to development and the loss of no more than 5 miles of streams used by salmon or other seagoing fish.
“In simple terms, the infrastructure necessary to mine the Pebble deposit jeopardizes the long-term health and sustainability of the Bristol Bay ecosystem,” said the 2014 document released by the EPA’s Seattle regional office.
Northern Dynasty, the Canadian company that owns Pebble Partnership, contested the EPA’s 2014 finding in a lawsuit settled during the first year of the Trump administration, and allowed the project to proceed with federal permitting. The EPA action Tuesday rescinds the 2014 findings, which Dennis McLerran, who served as the agency’s Seattle-based regional administrator during the Obama administration, said were based on the best available science.
“What is happening now is the decision-making process is being politicized and removed from the science,” McLerran said in a Tuesday interview.
The permits likely will face legal challenges.
“I think litigation is inevitable,” said Taryn Kiekow Heimer, a senior advocate at the Natural Resources Defense Council, which opposes the Pebble Mine.