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Federal judge weighs postponing Pebble mine hearing

WASHINGTON -- An Alaska federal court judge is considering postponing this month's arguments over Pebble mine after discovering that the Environmental Protection Agency's inspector general is investigating the agency's efforts to halt the project.

In an order issued Monday afternoon in Anchorage, U.S. District Judge Russel Holland cited information from a Sunday Alaska Dispatch News story, "that there is an Inspector General's investigation of matters having to do with the proceedings that are the subject of this litigation."

Holland, a semi-retired Reagan appointee, granted an injunction late last year that temporarily halted the EPA's efforts to preemptively "veto" a federal water discharge permit for the proposed mine. The agency embarked on that effort early in 2014 and proposed strict limits last summer, saying it had determined that large-scale mining posed an environmental danger to the Bristol Bay watershed and its rich salmon rivers.

The mine's backers sued the EPA, saying the agency violated the 1972 Federal Advisory Committee Act by in effect forming a federal advisory committee stacked with mine opponents and lacking mining industry influence.

Arguments are scheduled for May 28 on the EPA's motion to have Pebble's case tossed. If Pebble prevails, it would be able to move forward with the "discovery" phase of the trial, digging through agency officials' emails and conducting interviews. An eventual win for Pebble in the case would mean that EPA could not use its Bristol Bay watershed assessment to veto the project.

But Holland wrote Monday that the "court is concerned that the Inspector General's investigation might involve the claim made by Pebble Limited Partnership in this case based upon the Federal Advisory Committee Act." Holland asked both the EPA and the Pebble Partnership to submit briefs by May 14 "as to whether or not it should proceed … prior to the completion of the Inspector General's proceedings."

The results of the ongoing investigation by the inspector general's office -- an independent oversight arm of the agency -- are expected this summer, Inspector General Arthur Elkins Jr. said in congressional testimony last month.

So far, investigators "have reviewed extensive documents, thousands of email records and other correspondence, and interviewed numerous current and former federal employees and state employees, tribal representatives, the Pebble Limited Partnership's chief executive officer, and peer reviewers," Elkins said.

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