In a surprise move that buoyed hopes of groups trying to stop the Pebble gold and copper prospect in western Alaska, EPA administrator Scott Pruitt said Friday the agency would keep alive its proposed restrictions on the mine because of the threat it could pose to fisheries in the Bristol Bay region.
Pruitt said in a statement Friday that he made the decision after reviewing public comments about the development limits, proposed by the EPA under Obama in 2014.
"Based on that review, it is my judgment at this time that any mining projects in the region likely pose a risk to the abundant natural resources that exist there," he said. "Until we know the full extent of that risk, those natural resources and world-class fisheries deserve the utmost protection."
Pruitt, once a strong opponent of EPA actions who frequently sued the agency as Oklahoma's attorney general, said his decision does not derail the application of Pebble Limited Partnership for a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers permit to develop the mine.
But it leaves open the possibility that development of the prospect could be greatly limited, or not happen at all.
In a written statement, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, described the action as "a balanced approach."
"Administrator Pruitt is taking a balanced approach by allowing Pebble to enter the permitting process, while noting EPA's duty to fully protect the region's world-class fisheries," Murkowski's statement said. "With the company now having filed its application, I expect that a fair, rigorous, and transparent process will soon begin so that Alaskans can understand the impacts and risks, as well as the potential benefits associated with this project."
The EPA in July launched the public process to consider withdrawing the proposed decision. Friday's decision to keep those proposed limits came after the EPA received more than one million comments on the topic, the agency said in its statement quoting Pruitt.
Gov. Bill Walker joined longtime anti-mine opponents from the Bristol Bay region in a statement thanking Pruitt for his decision.
"I have spoken to Administrator Pruitt about the Pebble Mine project many times in the past year, and I have shared with him my belief that in the Bristol Bay region we should prioritize the resource that has sustained generations and must continue to do so in perpetuity," Walker said, referring to salmon.
Sportfishing business owners from the Southwest Alaska region, in a separate statement, praised Pruitt's decision, calling it a "surprise." They said the EPA's proposed limits were created following years of scientific analysis and public comment, and that a mine straddling salmon-producing headwaters of Bristol Bay would likely harm fish and drinking water.
"The EPA made the right decision by listening to local people, dozens of Alaskan business owners, and sportsmen and women around the country," said Brian Kraft, owner of Alaska Sportsman's Lodge.
Tom Collier, chief executive of Pebble Limited Partnership, said in a statement that the news does not change the company's approach to wining government approval to build the mine under a lawful permitting process.
"We believe we can demonstrate that we can responsibly construct and operate a mine at the Pebble deposit that meets Alaska's high environmental standards," he said. "We will also demonstrate that we can successfully operate a mine without compromising the fish and water resources around the project."
In 2014, Pebble sued the agency, saying the proposed limits were an attempt to pre-emptively thwart the project before Pebble could undergo the standard regulatory process. That year, U.S. District Judge Russel Holland stopped the EPA from taking action that could halt the prospect's development.
That led to the legal settlement in May. Pebble moved ahead with efforts to win government permitting approval, applying with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in December.
The Army Corps has initiated a thorough, fair review, Collier said.
"We intend to participate fully in the process and encourage all project stakeholders to do the same," he said.
As part of the settlement, the EPA agreed to undertake a process to consider withdrawing the proposed limits, said Suzanne Skadowski, an EPA spokeswoman. The agency took that step, heard from the public, and decided not to withdraw them, she said.
Once the Corps issues a final environmental impact statement explaining what effect the mine will have on the region, the EPA can decide to withdraw the proposed limits, revise them, or agree to permanently keep them, Skadowski said.
The EPA statement said Friday that Pebble's permit application "must clear a high bar, because EPA believes the risk to Bristol Bay may be unacceptable." It said not expressing an environmental position at this stage would be "disingenuous."
The EPA statement said the 2014 proposed limits were widely considered a "pre-emptive veto" of Pebble, improperly halting the application process. Pruitt in May took the first step to "rescind this due process denial." Pruitt's decision Friday followed through on his promise to restore the rule of law, the statement said.