Fed Wields Rare Veto To Block Alaskan Copper And Gold Mine Plan

Juneau, Alaska – The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Tuesday effectively vetoed a proposed open pit copper and gold mine in a remote region of southwest Alaska that is a trove of minerals coveted by mining interests but also supports the world’s largest sockeye salmon fishery.

The agency’s move, heralded by Alaska Natives and environmentalists who have long pushed for it, deals a potentially devastating blow to the proposed Pebble Mine and comes as an earlier rejection of a key federal permit for the project remains unresolved.

John Shively, CEO of Pebble Limited Partnership, called the EPA’s action “unlawful” and political in a statement and said litigation was likely. Shively has credited the project as key to the Biden administration’s push to meet green energy goals and make the US less dependent on foreign nations for such minerals.

Pebble Limited Partnership, the developer behind Pebble Mine, is owned by Canada-based Northern Dynasty Minerals Ltd.

Tuesday’s announcement marks only the 14th time in the roughly 50-year history of the federal Clean Water Act that the EPA has expanded its powers to halt or restrict activities for potential impacts on water bodies, including fisheries.

EPA Administrator Michael Regan said his agency’s use of his so-called veto power in this case “underscores the true irreplaceable and priceless natural wonder that is Bristol Bay.”

The veto is a victory for the environment, economy and tribes of Alaska’s Bristol Bay region, who have fought the proposal for more than a decade, said Joel Reynolds, western director and senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The mine would have endangered the region’s salmon fishery, which brings thousands of jobs to the region and provides about half of the world’s sockeye salmon, Reynolds said.

The Pebble deposit is located near the headwaters of the Bristol Bay watershed, which supports an abundance of salmon “unmatched in North America,” the EPA said.

The agency, citing an analysis by the US Army Corps of Engineers, said that discharging dredge or fill material to construct and operate the proposed mine site would result in the loss of nearly 100 miles (160 kilometers) of creek habitat, as well as wetland areas.

The Pebble partnership has claimed that the project can co-exist with salmon. The partnership’s website says the reservoir is on the headwaters of three “very small tributaries” and expresses confidence that any impact on the fishery “in the unlikely event of an incident” would be “minimal”.

Tuesday’s announcement is the latest blow to the project. At the end of former President Donald Trump’s term in office in 2020, the Army Corps of Engineers denied a key permit for the project. An appeal filed by the Pebble Partnership is pending.

The EPA’s ruling said it would prohibit the use of certain bodies of water as landfills for the disposal of material for the construction and operation of the proposed Pebble project. The decision also prohibits any future proposal to build or operate a mine to develop the deposit that would result in the same or greater impact and imposes restrictions on future proposals to develop the deposit.

Sen. Maria Cantwell, a Washington Democrat, called the EPA’s actions “the final nail in the coffin for the Pebble Mine” and the culmination of a “hard-fought battle.”

“Now we will have a thriving salmon run in Bristol Bay for generations to come,” she said.

Tribes in the Bristol Bay area petitioned the EPA in 2010 to protect the area under the federal Clean Water Act. United Tribes of Bristol Bay chief executive Alannah Hurley said to call the EPA announcement “welcome news” is an understatement.

The EPA proposed restrictions on large-scale mining in the region during the Obama administration that were never finalized. The Pebble partnership said the proposed restrictions were based on hypothetical mine plans and argued the project should go through the permitting process.

In 2017, during the Trump administration, the parties reached an agreement that gave the Pebble partnership time to submit a permit application to the Corps of Engineers, which it did. Eventually, the EPA withdrew the proposed restrictions, leading to a court challenge from mine critics.

EPA asked a judge during the Biden administration to overturn the retraction decision and return the matter to the agency for further consideration. That led to the process culminating in Tuesday’s announcement.

The EPA’s action means the Army Corps of Engineers could not approve the mining project as proposed, even if it had gone through an appeals process, said Radhika Fox, EPA assistant water administrator.

The project is approximately 200 miles (320 kilometers) southwest of Anchorage. The nearest villages are within approximately 20 miles (32 kilometers) of the deposit.

The EPA’s action ignores Alaska’s right to develop more than 300 square miles (777 square kilometers) of its land and ignores the interests of the region’s rural villages, whose residents could benefit from jobs and economic development, Shively said.

Leila Kimbrell, executive director of the Resource Development Council for Alaska Inc., called the EPA’s decision “a dangerous abuse of power and government overreach.”


Whittle reported from Portland, Maine.

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https://www.local10.com/business/2023/01/31/feds-use-rare-veto-to-block-alaska-copper-gold-mine-plan/ Fed Wields Rare Veto To Block Alaskan Copper And Gold Mine Plan

Sarah Y. Kim

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