The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced on Thursday it will resume its effort to halt the proposed Pebble mine.
The Biden administration plans to use a Clean Water Act provision, called Section 404(c), with the intent of stopping the controversial mine from ever being built. Groups opposed to the copper and gold project in Southwest Alaska have been calling on the federal government to do so for years, saying it’s a needed step to protect Bristol Bay’s salmon-rich waters from the risk of a mining accident.
The EPA took steps to halt the mine using that process under the Obama administration, but the agency moved to end that effort in 2019 under President Donald Trump.
“The Bristol Bay Watershed is an Alaskan treasure that underscores the critical value of clean water in America,” EPA administrator Michael Regan said in a written statement.
“What’s at stake is preventing pollution that would disproportionately impact Alaska Natives, and protecting a sustainable future for the most productive salmon fishery in North America,” Regan said.
The Pebble mineral deposit sits near headwaters that support Bristol Bay’s salmon fishery.
EPA plans to ask the courts, in a case brought by anti-Pebble groups, to allow the agency to reinitiate the process to protect Bristol Bay. If the courts approve, the agency will move ahead, but there will be opportunities for public input before any decision to “veto” the mine is final, EPA said.
Pebble Limited Partnership and parent company Northern Dynasty Minerals, a Canadian company, have pursued the project for two decades.
Mike Heatwole, a spokesman for the Pebble partnership, said in an email that an earlier federal review of the project noted “the tremendous economic opportunity the project represents for the communities around Iliamna Lake,” near where the mine would be located, “where year-round jobs are scarce, and costs of living are quite high.”
“As the Biden administration seeks lower carbon emissions for energy production, they should recognize that such change will require significantly more mineral production — notably copper,” Heatwole said. “The Pebble Project remains an important domestic source for the minerals necessary for the administration to reach its green energy goals.”
Conservation groups, fishing groups, tribes and others have vigorously opposed Pebble. It has drawn strong opposition nationally. Critics have called on the Biden administration in recent months to reinitiate the EPA effort in hopes that will close the curtain on Pebble.
In November, following opposition from prominent Republicans, including Donald Trump Jr. and Alaska’s U.S. senators, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers under the Trump administration denied the construction permit the project needs for development.
Pebble Partnership in May appealed the decision, but the Corps has indicated it may not make a decision until next year.
The project also faces other headwinds. An Alaska Native corporation from the region has also moved to block access to the deposit, and Pebble’s former chief executive resigned last fall after secretly recorded videos showed him bragging about his ties to Alaska politicians and regulators.
The EPA effort announced Thursday, if finalized, would be a rare move that provides a critical additional layer of protection for the Bristol Bay watershed, said Nelli Williams, Alaska director for Trout Unlimited.
“Now is the time to get these much-needed protections across the finish line, and we look forward to working with EPA and Congress to get it done,” Williams said. “Let’s put the Pebble mine proposal in the rearview mirror for good so we can focus on a bright, prosperous and fish-filled future for Bristol Bay.”
The EPA’s proposed action in 2014 would have limited the amount of wastewater and mine discharge that could have been released into Bristol Bay. It would have blocked a large-scale hard rock mine like Pebble, but smaller projects could have been allowed.
After the Trump administration moved to withdraw that EPA proposal, several organizations sued to stop it, and the case reached the 9th Circuit.
Alannah Hurley, executive director of United Tribes of Bristol Bay, said similar EPA actions have stopped development of about a dozen projects around the nation, out of vast numbers of projects that have sought EPA permitting approval, she said. The halted projects would have negatively affected U.S. waters in unacceptable ways, she said.
“This is as close to permanent as you can get,” Alannah Hurley said of EPA’s proposal.
United Tribes of Bristol Bay represents 15 tribal governments from the Bristol Bay region. They were one of the groups that legally challenged EPA’s 2019 withdrawal.
Hurley said she hopes new information gathered since 2014 will prompt the EPA to ultimately issue more significant protections than it proposed seven years ago.
“They have what they need to take much broader actions to protect the headwaters of Bristol Bay,” she said.
The state of Alaska is a party to the ongoing lawsuit over Pebble, and Gov. Mike Dunleavy said the state is prepared to continue legal action in order to defend resource development projects.
”Pre-emptive vetoes of any type, for any project or any permit, for any company, is dangerous and will be opposed by our state because of the precedent that it will set,” Dunleavy told reporters on Thursday.
The governor said he sees Thursday’s action on Pebble as part of a broader trend and referenced Biden administration decisions on drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, the decision to reimpose the roadless rule in the Tongass National Forest and a change to the Waters of the United States rule.
”Make no mistake about it: The state of Alaska is dependent upon resource extraction. This country is dependent on resource extraction. This way of life, this civilization is dependent upon resource extraction. And we do it better here Alaska than anywhere else. So this is a fight for the state’s future,” Dunleavy said.
Daily News reporter James Brooks contributed.