BRISTOL BAY, Alaska (KTUU) - The Environmental Protection Agency will not scrap an Obama-era decision that a large-scale mining operation could irreversibly damage Alaska’s Bristol Bay watershed.
EPA Chief Scott Pruitt made the unexpected announcement Friday afternoon, saying: “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. Until we know the full extent of that risk, those natural resources and world-class fisheries deserve the utmost protection."
"There certainly has been controversy and opposition around large mines prior to beginning operating," said Deantha Crockett, of the Alaska Miners Assn., "but there's never been an agency that's come out before an application that's said, 'No, we don't think this is going to work.'"
EPA and Pebble reached a settlement in 2017 that pulled the rule and cleared the way for the mining company to apply for a federal permit. That permit was submitted just before the end of the year.
Additionally, earlier this month, Pruitt announced that the agency would no longer be regulating by the 'sue and settle' process.
But despite his remarks on the risk the project poses to the area, Pruitt's agency wrote that "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."
In response, Pebble Limited Partnership CEO Tom Collier wrote that the announcement from the EPA does change their approach. “We filed our permit application for review by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers under the National Environmental Policy Act. The USACE has determined we have a complete application and has initiated a thorough, objective review of the Pebble Project. We intend to participate fully in the process and encourage all project stakeholders to do the same."
Collier also said that PLP believes, "we can demonstrate that we can responsibly construct and operate a mine at the Pebble
Deposit that meets Alaska’s high environmental standards. We will also demonstrate that we can successfully operate a mine without compromising the fish and water resources around the project."
"Nothing has changed," said Mike Heatwole, also of the Pebble Ltd. Partnership. "For us, this is business as usual going forward.
"We recognize the sensitive ecosystem that is in and around the project area, and we put a lot of info into that process and are looking forward to having that thoroughly reviewed by the regulatory bodies," he said.
Gov. Bill Walker meanwhile welcomed the decision by the EPA, saying the agency had taken a step that both respects due process rights of "the mining industry and acknowledges the concerns many Alaskans have about the potential effects of mining in the Bristol Bay region."
“I have spoken to Administrator Pruitt about the Pebble Mine Project many times in the past year, and I have shared with him my belief that in the Bristol Bay region we should prioritize the resource that has sustained generations and must continue to do so in perpetuity," said Walker.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski said in a statement, Administrator Pruitt is taking a balanced approach by allowing Pebble to enter the permitting process, while noting EPA’s duty to fully protect the region’s world-class fisheries,” Murkowski said. “With the company now having filed its application, I expect that a fair, rigorous, and transparent process will soon begin so that Alaskans can understand the impacts and risks, as well as the potential benefits associated with this project.”
Opponents of the Pebble Mine were celebrating Pruitt's decision.
"For the science, for local people, for the real long term interests and stake holders of Bristol Bay," said Rick Halford, who works with the United Tribes of Bristol Bay, "I think it's a very positive step. It was a surprise. And I think it's a good one."
Many also said that thousands of fishing jobs and $1.5 billion in economic activity were being protected.
“Today, Administrator Pruitt and EPA listened to Alaskans and science by keeping in place the proposed protections for Bristol Bay. More than 2,500 Bristol Bay, 26,000 Alaskan, and approximately one million American comments were submitted in support of protections for Bristol Bay during the most recent public comment period on the proposal to withdraw, showing clear and widespread support for restrictions on hard rock mining of the Pebble deposit," said Norm Van Vactor, CEO of Bristol Bay Economic Development Corporation.