The positive momentum that seemed to be leading to clearer path to permitting of Northern Dynasty Minerals’ Pebble Project in Alaska took a surprising turn on Jan. 26 when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced that it will halt plans to withdraw proposed restrictions on mining in Alaska’s Bristol Bay Region that were put in place by the Obama administration.
Pebble Mine, proposed for more than a decade, is the world’s biggest undeveloped gold and copper project. Located in Alaska’s Bristol Bay region, the world’s largest sockeye salmon fishery, it has drawn opposition from environmentalists, some native groups and sport fishermen.
The Obama-era Environmental Protection Agency had blocked the project in 2014 even before a permit application had been filed, a move reversed by the current EPA this year.
In May of 2017, the EPA entered into a legal settlement with Pebble developers to allow them to begin the Clean Water Act permitting process. The agency soon after moved to consider undoing Obama-era proposed development limits, but on Jan. 26 the EPA changed course.
“Based on that review, it is my judgment at this time that any mining projects in the region likely pose a risk to the abundant natural resources that exist there,” administrator Scott Pruitt said in a statement.
“Until we know the full extent of that risk, those natural resources and world-class fisheries deserve the utmost protection,” he said. “Today’s action allows EPA to get the information needed to determine what specific impacts the proposed mining project will have on those critical resources.”
Obama administration critics, including Pruitt, have said EPA should not have acted against Pebble prior to the project entering permitting.
EPA said Pruitt was “following through on his promise to restore the rule of law” and noted the Army Corps of Engineers is already reviewing the Pebble project.
“This decision neither deters nor derails the application process of Pebble Limited Partnership's proposed project. The project proponents continue to enjoy the protection of due process and the right to proceed,” said EPA’s release. “However, their permit application must clear a high bar, because EPA believes the risk to Bristol Bay may be unacceptable.”
The Associated Press reported that the Tom Collier, CEO of the Pebble partnership, said the EPA’s announcement does not deter the project. Pebble recently filed a permit application with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which will trigger an environmental review of the project.
“We believe we can demonstrate that we can responsibly construct and operate a mine at the Pebble deposit that meets Alaska’s high environmental standards,” he said in a release. “We will also demonstrate that we can successfully operate a mine without compromising the fish and water resources around the project.”