The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Pebble Limited Partnership reached an agreement on May 11 that could clear the way for the project to pursue permitting for the massive gold and copper mine in Alaska’s Bristol Bay Region.
The decision by the EPA does not grant immediate approval for the mine but it does reverse a 2014 decision by the agency that effectively blocked progress of the mine on the grounds that any large scale mine could damage the regions salmon industry. The Bristol Bay Region is home to the one of the world’s most valuable salmon fisheries.
The Pebble Partnership, a subsidiary of Northern Dynasty Minerals Ltd. now has a much clearer path to apply for federal permits for the mine.
In a statement, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt said that 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 due process and the rule of law, and regulations that are ‘regular’,” said Pruitt. “We understand how much the community cares about this issue, with passionate advocates on all sides … We are committed to listening to all voices as this process unfolds.”
In 2014 the EPA invoked a rarely used clause of the Clean Water Act, 404(c), to issue a proposed determination that the company could not apply to the Army Corps of Engineers for any permits because a massive mine could have “significant” and potentially “catastrophic” impacts on the region.
The company has sued EPA on three different fronts, arguing that the agency violated the Clean Water Act, colluded with outside groups to reach its determination and violated the Freedom of Information Act. The suit concerning the outside groups, filed under the Federal Advisory Committee Act, was the one settled in federal court in Alaska, the Washington Post reported.
Under the terms of the settlement announced Friday, the EPA will withdraw its proposed rejection of the mine and Pebble will be able to file permit applications for it.
The EPA will not issue a recommendation on the mine until the Army Corps of Engineers issues a final environmental impact statement for the project.
“We’ve asked for nothing more than fairness and due process under the law – the right to propose a development plan for Pebble and have it assessed against the robust environmental regulations and rigorous permitting requirements enforced in Alaska and the United States," said Ron Thiessen, the chief executive officer of Northern Dynasty Minerals.
“Today's settlement gives us precisely that, the same treatment every developer and investor in a stable, first world country should expect.”
Despite the ruling, the project is still years away from breaking ground and continues to face significant opposition.
A coalition of fishing operators, native Alaskans, environmentalists and local businesses have fought the mine proposal for more than a decade, ever since Northern Dynasty Minerals began exploring for minerals in 2004. While this area in southwestern Alaska contains a reservoir of gold worth an estimated $120 billion, its pockmarked lakes and tributaries feed into the headwaters of Bristol Bay, home to a fishery that generates $500 million a year.