EPA reaches settlement potentially clearing a path for controversial Pebble Mine project

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ANCHORAGE (KTUU) - After years of back and forth, there's yet another development in the controversial Pebble Mine project.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) settled a lawsuit with the Pebble Limited Partnership and says the company can apply for a federal permit.

Pebble wants to develop a massive gold and copper mine in the Bristol Bay watershed.

This newest update doesn't guarantee the mines construction and Pebble still needs to recruit investors to go forward.

Pebble leadership initially sued the EPA claiming that it was colluding with opponents to the mining industry in order to block the Pebble Mine project. EPA's inspector general said they found no evidence the agency acted improperly.

In 2014, the EPA concluded the project posed significant risk to salmon and could adversely affect Alaska Natives in the Bristol Bay region.

"We recognize we have to coexist with the fishery," Mike Heatwole with Pebble said. "We believe that the science and the data that we have generated will allow us to demonstrate why that's the case. We take great exception to what the EPA had previously said about this. We think their process was flawed, but that's behind us now. It allows us to move forward and to get into that rigorous, thorough, objective and science based environmental impact statement for the process."

Pebble says it has decided to develop a smaller mine and will begin gearing up again, adding staff and beginning the environmental impact studies, which will take a considerable amount of time.

Bristol Bay Native Corporation said it and the people the corporation represents do not believe the mine can be developed safely without jeopardizing the fishing in the area.

"The opposition to the Pebble Mine is committed and still focused on achieving our result which is making sure that the fisheries of Bristol Bay are adequately protected," Dan Cheyette the VP and general counsel for BBNC said.

Heatwole wouldn't say exactly what the plans are for the smaller mine, saying that information would be released at a later date.

"In addition to a substantially smaller project, we have a lot of new thoughts on additional environmental safeguards which we know was important not only to folks in the region but to Alaskans," Heatwole said.

Cheyette said he doesn't believe the project will be smaller.

"Mine proponents have always said it's going to be smaller to do their best to allay fears about the risk that are being posed," Cheyette said. "We harbor no reservations or no misgivings that if they get the chance to develop that mine they are going to attempt to mine every bit of gold that they can. So they can say it's a smaller mine plan, but that is just a the beginning to a much larger mine."

Representative Bryce Edgmon (D-Dillingham) released a statement condemning the proposed mine.

"The threat of pollution from the Pebble Mine is real, which is why the EPA imposed protections in the first place. My fear is that the fight to protect Bristol Bay will get caught up in some ill-advised national political agenda being pushed by President Trump and others in the new administration. Resource development should not be more important than protecting the environment and sustainable resources like the sockeye salmon that sustain the economy and the people I represent," the statement said.

Heatwole said the project could mean millions of dollars for the state, which is in a recession. He said there are already potential investors interested in the proposed mine.

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