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Bristol Bay groups sue EPA in hope of restoring ‘preemptive veto’ over Pebble prospect

From left are Bristol Bay Reserve Association Board Member Mike LaRussa, Bristol Bay Native Association President/CEO Ralph Andersen, Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association Executive Director Andy Wink, United Tribes of Bristol Bay Deputy Director Lindsay Layland, Bristol Bay Economic Development Corp. President/CEO Norm Van Vactor and Robin Samuelson of Bristol Bay Native Corp. Several representatives from Bristol Bay organizations made statements at the Federal Courthouse in Anchorage on Tuesday. The groups are suing the EPA in hopes of restoring its 2014 proposed determination that could have halted the Pebble mining project. (Marc Lester / ADN)

Five Bristol Bay groups representing tribes and salmon fishermen filed a lawsuit in federal court Tuesday in an effort to force the Environmental Protection Agency to restore its 2014 proposal that could have halted the Pebble copper and gold mine.

The organizations, including the United Tribes of Bristol Bay and Bristol Bay Native Association, want the federal district court in Anchorage to decide that an action by EPA regional administrator Chris Hladick in July — revoking the 2014 proposal — was illegal, arbitrary and capricious.

The Trump "administration not only broke the law, it made clear that local people have no voice in the management of our rivers, our streams and wetlands,” said Ralph Andersen — chief executive of BBNA, a consortium of 31 tribes — at a news conference after the filing. “But the people of Bristol Bay are not pushovers.”

Mine developer Pebble Limited Partnership responded swiftly to the complaint, calling it “without merit" early Tuesday.

“As such, we believe the lawsuit will be dismissed,” the company said in a statement provided by spokesman Mike Heatwole. “The (2014) preemptive action was poor policy to begin with — a precedent that caused alarm among most of Alaska’s business and trade organizations regardless of their views about Pebble.”

Aerial view of a work camp in the area of the proposed Pebble mine, 2013. (Bill Roth / ADN archive)

The 40-page complaint says the EPA in July “failed to consider the substantive findings it made in support” of its 2014 proposed determination that a mine could cause substantial harm to the environment. Mine supporters have feared EPA could use the proposed determination to halt the mine, in a step called a “preemptive veto.”

The other groups bringing the lawsuit are the Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association and Bristol Bay Reserve Association, two groups representing fishermen, and the Bristol Bay Economic Development Corp., a nonprofit promoting economic growth.

The EPA in July removed its potential “veto” threat to stop the Pebble project, calling its proposed restrictions “outdated" after Pebble Limited filed a development proposal with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 2017 for the first time. That set the stage for the project to potentially receive a key construction-related permit from the Corps after the Corps releases a final environmental review of the project, expected in 2020.

The mine would straddle salmon-producing headwaters of the valuable Bristol Bay fishery, generating fears it would harm salmon and subsistence fishermen. Pebble Limited Partnership has said it can safely develop the mine without harming the fishery.

The EPA and others, including Sen. Lisa Murkowski, have criticized the Corps’ draft environmental review of the project released in February. The Corps has said it will address those complaints and release a thorough, final review.

But Murkowski, Sen. Dan Sullivan and Rep. Don Young, as well as Gov. Mike Dunleavy, have said they agreed with the EPA’s decision in July and do not support the “preemptive veto.”

Six tribal governments from the region sought the EPA determination starting in 2010, leading the agency to conduct a lengthy review of possible mine scenarios amid overwhelming public comment against the project.

The Bristol Bay groups assert in the newly filed lawsuit that the EPA in July also did not properly consider scientific and technical information.

Officials with the groups said Tuesday that the Trump administration has engaged in a political process led by leaders at the EPA while brushing aside scientific and public concerns.

A spokesperson with the EPA said Tuesday that the agency does not comment on pending litigation.

Correction: A previous version of this article misspelled Bristol Bay Native Association President/CEO Ralph Andersen’s last name.

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