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Pebble opponents vow to keep fighting after EPA changes course

Opponents of the Pebble copper and gold mine on Wednesday were planning next steps to stop the project, a day after the Environmental Protection Agency revoked its 2014 proposal that could have halted the mine.

“We’ll see them in court,” said Robin Samuelsen, a Bristol Bay fisherman and board member for mine foe Bristol Bay Native Corp. “Groups are talking among ourselves and that’s where this is headed. They have turned this whole process upside down."

Meantime, Alaska’s congressional delegation and Gov. Mike Dunleavy expressed support for the removal of EPA’s 2014 proposed determination, often called a “preemptive veto” against the project.

“I have never supported preemptive restrictions for any project in Alaska,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska. “It is inappropriate for an agency to prejudge a project years before its proponent has filed a permit application. Allowing agencies to expand their authority in this manner would set a dangerous precedent that undermines confidence in the normal, well-established permitting process.”

The action by EPA regional administrator Chris Hladick on Tuesday struck the proposed determination that would have restricted the mine over concerns about damage to the valuable Bristol Bay salmon fishery. Now, the EPA plans to continue working with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as it evaluates a development plan, submitted in 2017 by Pebble Limited Partnership.

A statement from Murkowski’s office Wednesday night said EPA retains its authority to veto the potential permit, if it finds the project would cause unacceptable impacts.

Rep. Don Young said the decision will help ensure the developer is treated to a “fair and evidence-based review" by the Corps.

“I am pleased that the EPA has decided to withdraw the Obama-era preemptive veto on the Pebble project,” said Young. "I will continue to work with the EPA and Army Corps to ensure the science is completed so that we may come to a determination on the potential impacts of the proposed project.”

Sullivan said he’s always believed the EPA lacked “legal authority” to employ the “preemptive veto,” which could set a precedent that hurt the state’s economy.

“That said, as I’ve repeatedly emphasized, the approval of any Pebble project should be contingent on not trading one resource for another," he said. "In its comments on the (Corps’) draft environmental impact statement published earlier month, the EPA raised serious concerns that must be addressed before the Corps of Engineers issues its record of decision on the final environmental impact statement.”

Dunleavy, who had called on President Donald Trump for help rejecting the proposed determination, said the decision will allow an equitable permitting process under the law.

“Now that it’s been lifted, this project and other future projects, can be assured that the state will follow a merit-based review and articulated guidelines to see if the project passes muster,” he said.

The EPA made the announcement on Tuesday as Bristol Bay fishermen like Samuelsen were wrapping up another blockbuster salmon season, with more than 40 million sockeye harvested.

“People out here are really upset,” Samuelsen said, putting up fishing gear at his home in Dillingham. “People are fearing the mine will go through and there will be a spill into rivers that hurts our culture that has relied on salmon for thousands of years.”

Alannah Hurley, executive director of United Tribes of Bristol Bay, said she’ll turn to the delegation, especially Murkowski, who has raised concerns about the Corps’ review, for help stopping the project.

“It’s time for her to walk her talk and stop this process from moving forward,” Hurley said.

Six tribal governments from the region sought the EPA determination starting in 2010, leading to lengthy scientific review and overwhelming public comment against the project, she said.

Now, the decision returns Pebble opponents to a period when it seemed neither the state or federal government listened, she said.

“This is years of work and science and progress being ignored,” Hurley said. “But it instills in us that fact, history and reason are still on our side, and we will keep fighting."

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