EPA’s Obama-Era Pebble Mine Limits to Remain, Alaska Group Says

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By Stephen Lee

The EPA plans to retain Obama-era restrictions that could hamper the construction of a massive gold and silver mine in Alaska, two members of a group briefed by the agency told Bloomberg Environment.

If so, the Pebble Mine could still move forward as it seeks the permits it needs, but would have to adhere to requirements the Environmental Protection Agency proposed in 2014 to protect wetlands along the pristine Bristol Bay and limit the construction of mine waste impoundments.

Pebble’s owners now will likely have to prove to the EPA that the elimination of wetlands and creation of waste rock impoundments won’t harm the Bristol Bay ecosystem, which produces nearly half the world’s sockeye salmon.

A coalition of local businesspeople, tribal groups, and congressionally mandated entities known as Alaska Native Regional Corporations met with EPA political appointees and senior staff Sept. 11 and were told that the restrictions under the federal Clean Water Act will remain, said Matt Newman, senior staff attorney at the Native American Rights Fund, which represents tribal entities in Alaska. Newman himself was at the meeting.

“They were very adamant that [former EPA chief Scott] Pruitt’s final order, leaving the proposed determination in place, stands, even with the recent change in leadership that occurred this summer,” Newman told Bloomberg Environment Sept. 18, referring to Pruitt’s resignation in July. “There is no indication whatsoever from the EPA that that decision is under any further consideration.”

In January, Pruitt made a surprise decision to leave Obama’s 2014 proposed water limits in place. That proposal would have effectively denied Pebble’s ability to secure a Clean Water Act permit, and was issued before Pebble had even submitted a mine plan or applied for a permit.

‘Nothing Has Changed’

The reasoning behind Pruitt’s January decision remains a mystery, particularly since he had moved in May 2017 to remove the limits. The EPA would almost certainly face a legal challenge by Alaskans and environmentalists should the Obama limits be waived.

Dan Cheyette, vice president of lands and resources at the Bristol Bay Native Corporation, said Bristol Bay groups have been in “constant contact” with EPA officials for many months and have never been told that the restrictions would be lifted.

Within the last 10 days, an EPA official said “nothing has changed since Pruitt decided not to rescind the proposed determination,” Cheyette told Bloomberg Environment. “They said they’re not even going to consider rescinding it unless something changes. And even if they did go down that line, there would be another round of public comment, and Bristol Bay stakeholders would have the opportunity to weigh in again.”

The EPA didn’t respond to numerous interview requests Sept. 18.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), who have been involved in the Pebble talks with EPA, also didn’t comment.

Shoddy Analysis?

On Sept. 6, a coalition of business groups, including Americans for Tax Reform, Americans for Prosperity, and the Competitive Enterprise Institute, sent a letter to the EPA urging it to strike down the 2014 Obama action known as a proposed determination.

Calling the action a pre-emptive veto, the groups said the proposed limits “would have a dramatic chilling effect on investment in America” and would block the creation of 2,000 jobs. They also alleged it was “based on incomplete, shoddy analysis, and agency collusion with liberal environmental activists and other project opponents.”

The Obama restrictions were never finalized, and legally can’t be until 2021, thanks to a court settlement the EPA reached with Pebble Mine last May. Until then, the EPA agreed not to impose more permanent restrictions under section 404(c) of the Clean Water Act, which addresses the dumping of dredged or fill material.

If built, the Pebble Mine would tap into one of the biggest gold and copper deposits in the nation. Its supporters say it would bring much-needed jobs and economic growth to the Bristol Bay region.

The project’s opponents, however, argue it would have vast environmental impacts, including endangering the world’s largest wild salmon fishery as well as human health.

December Deadline

The Pebble Mine would sit at the headwaters of the sockeye-salmon-rich Nushagak River.

In June, Pruitt gave EPA’s Office of Water a December deadline for considering changes to its dredging permitting program that would forbid the agency from blocking permits before the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has received a permit application or after the Corps has issued a decision.

EPA is still working on that order, Newman said.

Pebble’s owner, Northern Dynasty Minerals, Ltd., is based in Vancouver, B.C.

Northern Dynasty has been seeking a new investor since First Quantum Minerals Ltd. walked away from the project in late May.

Sean Magee, executive vice president of strategic communications and public affairs at Northern Dynasty parent company Hunter Dickinson, told Bloomberg Environment that the company “does not make public comment on the status of its discussions with prospective partners, or its engagement with shareholders and investors.”

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