On July 11, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released a formal regulatory proposal that could cancel the action the agency took in 2014 to block the development of the Pebble gold and copper project in Southwest Alaska.
Under President Obama, the EPA issued proposed restrictions under the Clean Water Act blocking progress of the mine before formal mine plans had been submitted. The EPA argued then that the Pebble Mine could pose a threat to the Bristol Bay watershed, home to the largest salmon run in the world.
The Pebble Partnership sued, saying the effort pre-emptively thwarted the project before the company could undergo the standard regulatory process and submit plans for agency approval. In 2014, U.S. District Judge Russel Holland stopped the EPA from taking action that could halt development at the prospect, leading to the settlement, the Alaska News Dispatch reported.
In May of 2017, the Trump administration began to dismantle the 2014 decision when it reached an agreement with the Pebble Partnership and said it would scrap the EPA proposal.
“The proposal reflects the Administrator’s [Scott Pruitt] decision to provide [Pebble] with additional time to submit a permit application to the Army Corps and potentially allow the Army Corps permitting process to initiate without having an open and unresolved Section 404(c) review,” the EPA wrote in its notice, referring to the section of the Clean Water Act under which Pebble would need a permit to dump waste from the mine into waterways.
“A withdrawal of the proposed determination would remove any uncertainty, real or perceived, about [Pebble’s] ability to submit a permit application and have that permit application reviewed.”
Beginning on July 11, the EPA will seek public comment on withdrawing the proposed restrictions. The 90-day comment period is longer than the typical 30-day comment period, allowing extra time for fishermen to voice opinions once fishing seasons end, she said.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, in late June had raised concerns with Pruitt, asking for enough time so local residents could weigh in.
Pebble, owned by Northern Dynasty Minerals of Canada, said it has responded to concerns about the project, including pursuing a smaller mine plan with details to be released later this year.
Opponents have said the smaller plan is a ruse to get the development underway, and that the project near some of the bay's headwaters would soon be expanded to the original large footprint.
The EPA's public outreach will include a tribal consultation process, with the EPA meeting with tribal governments, and Native corporations owning land in the Bristol Bay region, the agency has said.