The Environmental Protection Agency decided on Thursday to strike a blow at the Pebble mine project, a big prospect for copper and gold in a hotly contested salmon-rich region of southwest Alaska. for over a decade.
Casey Sixkiller, the administrator for the EPA’s Pacific Northwest region, which includes Alaska, recommended the agency prevent construction of the mine in an action rarely used by the agency called a “veto,” paving the way for a final decision from EPA headquarters by February.
The EPA said the mine, if built, would be one of the largest open-pit copper mines in the world and would destroy about 100 miles of waterways that support salmon habitat, releasing ‘dredged or fill material’, essentially rock or gravel. , in the mining basin. It would cause “unacceptable adverse effects” on fishing grounds in a watershed of “unprecedented ecological value”, the agency said, backing its special action.
“If confirmed by the EPA’s Office of Water in the fourth and final stage, this action would help protect salmon fishing areas that support world-class commercial and recreational fishing, and that have supported native communities in Alaska for thousands of years, supporting a subsistence lifestyle for one of the last intact wild salmon-based cultures in the world,” Sixkiller said in a statement Thursday.
Opponents of the mine have long called for the action, and say it is unlikely to be reversed and could close the door to the project. These groups celebrated the news on Thursday.
Alannah Hurley, leader of the United Bristol Bay Tribes, urged the Biden administration in a statement to finalize the decision to veto the project. She and other opponents argued that pollution from the mine would destroy the fishery.
“After twenty years of Pebble hanging over our heads, the Biden administration has an opportunity to follow through on its commitments by finalizing comprehensive and enduring protections for our region as soon as possible,” Hurley said. “We look forward to further reviewing the EPA’s recommended decision to ensure that it achieves the goal of protecting our people and our region from the threat of the Pebble Mine.”
“Our fishermen were able to deliver 59 million wild sockeye salmon to market – something that doesn’t happen anywhere else in the world,” Katherine Carscallen, Bristol Bay Commercial Fishermen’s Manager, said on Thursday, calling the announcement ” important step towards finalizing the urgently needed protections for the region.
Proponents say the mine can co-exist with the fishery without harming it, and could open up an area of Alaska that contains minerals worth hundreds of billions of dollars, creating new jobs and helping the struggling economy of State.
In a prepared statement Thursday, Pebble Limited chief executive John Shively said an EPA veto would be illegal.
“Congress has not given the EPA broad authority to act as it did in the Pebble case,” Shively said. “This is clearly a massive regulatory override by the EPA and well outside of what Congress intended for the agency when it passed the Clean Water Act.”
Pebble Limited warned in September that legal action could follow if the EPA finalizes the veto.
The EPA action is separate from a decision by the US Army Corps of Engineers in 2020 to reject a permit for the mine under the traditional federal licensing process. The Corps said the mine was not in the public interest. Mining developer Pebble Limited Partnership is appealing this decision. The EPA’s decision would negate any findings by the Corps on the project.
The mine site, located on state land, straddles the headwaters of the Bristol Bay region about 200 miles southwest of Anchorage. It is home to the largest sockeye salmon fishery in the world, worth an estimated $2 billion.
The project has been in the works for decades, after exploration began in the 1980s. Its history has been marked by a series of roller-coaster events, including attempts to shut it down under three US presidents, the leak videos that led to the resignation of its then-CEO in 2020 and overwhelming public opposition to the project in EPA comment periods.
During a recent comment period, the agency received more than 582,000 public comments on its proposal, said EPA spokeswoman Suzanne Skadowski. The comments were overwhelmingly against the project, similar to previous rounds of comments from the EPA, she said.
The project divided Alaska’s political leadership.
The Alaska congressional delegation, Republican Sens Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan, and newly elected Democratic Representative Mary Peltola, oppose Pebble.
The senators said EPA intervention was not the right way to stop Pebble, but they supported the licensing process led by the US Army Corps of Engineers and the Corps’ earlier decision to reject the project.
Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy took several steps in favor of Pebble, including urging the EPA in September not to veto the project. The governor told the agency that a veto would undermine Alaska’s legal decision-making power over resource development and make preemptive decisions about what resources Alaska can develop and how it can develop them.
The state argued that the federal government ceded the land to Alaska for this type of development, as part of a 1976 agreement that involved the state providing land that led to the creation of the Lake Clark National Park in the area.
Dunleavy warned the agency that a veto is a regulatory grab that would result in billions of dollars owed in compensation to the state.
Sixkiller’s recommendation will be forwarded to Radhika Fox, EPA’s deputy water administrator. Fox is expected to make a final decision within 60 days on the proposed veto, said agency spokeswoman Suzanne Skadowski.
Fox can reject the veto proposal, modify it or accept it, Skadowski said. The EPA’s Office of Water will review the filing on the proposal so far, along with other information provided by the Corps and Pebble Limited, including any remedial measures the developer may propose to limit damage to the basin. pouring.
The history of the EPA’s Pebble proposal goes back years. In 2014, the agency initially decided to shut down the mine under President Barack Obama, proposing to use the same special authority being prosecuted today.
Pebble Limited at the time had not submitted a plan for federal government approval, but several tribes in the Bristol Bay area requested the right of veto, fearing the mine would harm fisheries and the environment.
This proposed action by the EPA led to a lawsuit by the developer and a ruling by a federal judge against this proposal, ending the effort. In 2017, under President Donald Trump, the EPA pulled out under a settlement agreement between the agency and the developer, allowing Pebble to proceed with its project through the federal licensing process.
As part of that process, Pebble submitted a development plan for Corps approval, leading to the agency’s license being denied, which was also under the Trump administration.
The EPA announced in 2021, under Democratic President Joe Biden, that its special action to potentially veto the project was back on the table.
The agency has taken final steps to use its special veto just 13 times in its 50-year history, in an effort to protect important resources. If this action is finalized, it will be a first for Alaska and the Pacific Northwest region which includes Oregon, Washington and Idaho.
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