Business/Economy

Biden administration announces effort to stop Pebble copper and gold mine from being built

The Environmental Protection Agency has announced that it will renew its effort to prevent construction of the Pebble copper and gold mine, an action that Pebble critics have long sought as a possible fatal blow to the project.

The federal agency said Wednesday that it would issue a proposal to ban the project from disposing of dredged or fill material into streams or wetlands — an action that, if finalized, could prevent the mine from ever being built.

The proposed action is open for public comment through July 5 before it can be finalized. It’s the latest move in the back-and-forth saga over the Pebble prospect that has played out for years.

The vast mineral deposit is located on state land, near headwaters of the world’s most valuable salmon fishery, about 200 miles southwest of Anchorage.

The EPA said its proposal is based on decades of information, with current data based on the 2020 development plan from Pebble now included. Its prohibition will apply not only to Pebble, but also to any future mine proposed for the deposit. The agency said it found that the mine’s negative impacts to the Bristol Bay watershed include the permanent loss of 8.5 miles of streams, displacing or killing salmon.

“Clearly, Bristol Bay and the thousands of people who rely on it deserve the highest level of protection,” said Casey Sixkiller, head of the EPA region that includes Alaska.

The Pebble Limited Partnership project, in the works for two decades, has been the source of multiple lawsuits and strong opposition, and has seen shifting political winds amid changing presidents and governors, as well as leaked videotapes that in 2020 led to a Pebble chief executive’s resignation.

The EPA’s new proposal harks back to its effort in 2014 to preliminarily “veto” the mine before companies could submit a project plan to another federal agency, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, for a construction permit.

Tribal groups and commercial and subsistence fishermen from the Bristol Bay region, concerned that the mine would destroy a salmon fishery now valued at more than $2 billion annually, played an instrumental role in that EPA effort. Pebble Limited has fought them at every turn, in support of a deposit valued in the hundreds of billions of dollars, if extraction is allowed.

But that EPA proposal was never finalized, after mine developer Pebble Limited Partnership successfully sued the agency. Later, the development effort temporarily gained steam under President Donald Trump, until the Corps rejected a permit for the project in the final months of Trump’s leadership. Pebble has appealed that rejected permit.

Alannah Hurley, head of the United Tribes of Bristol Bay, a group of 15 tribes from the region that has opposed Pebble, said that this newest EPA effort appears to propose a stronger ban against a mine than its 2014 proposal.

The EPA’s summary of its plans indicates the agency will prohibit the release of dredged materials at the mine site, rather than restricting the release, she said. “It’s definitely stronger than 2014, at first glance,” Hurley said. “Prohibitions are a much stronger form of protection than restrictions.”

But Hurley said she won’t know exactly what the EPA plans until she can see the language of the proposed determination on Thursday, she said. That’s when the EPA’s proposed determination will be made official, with publication in the federal register.

Hurley said an EPA preliminary veto will provide long-term protection for the region.

Pebble Limited Partnership decried the renewed EPA effort in a statement Wednesday.

“This is clearly a giant step backwards for the Biden Administration’s climate change goals,” said John Shively, chief executive of Pebble Limited. “I find it ironic that the president is using the Defense Production Act to get more renewable energy minerals such as copper into production while others in the administration seek political ways to stop domestic mining projects such as ours.”

The permit process and Pebble’s appeal should be able to move freely forward, without the EPA launching an outside process, Shively said. The project would have a huge economic benefit for villages in the region where the cost of living is very high, he said.

“This preemptive effort is clearly a political maneuver to attempt to block our ability to work through that established process,” Shively said. “Further, the Army Corps of Engineers published an Environmental Impact Statement for Pebble in 2020 with input from many agencies including the EPA that states that the project can be done without harm to the region’s fisheries.”

A statement from Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s office Wednesday evening criticized the EPA, asserting it will prevent Alaska from controlling access to minerals it has a right to develop.

“I encourage all Alaskans to support a full permitting process, responsible resource development, and good jobs for our state by commenting against this proposed determination,” Dunleavy said.

Several Native and tribal groups from the Bristol Bay region praised the EPA announcement on Wednesday. That included the Bristol Bay Native Corp., the local Alaska Native regional corporation and one of the biggest companies in the state.

“This proposal is good news for Bristol Bay, and it could not come at a more opportune time, as millions of sockeye salmon return to their home waters and the people of the region ready their nets to once again engage in annual subsistence and commercial fishing activities,” said Jason Metrokin, chief executive for the corporation.

The company looks forward to the EPA finalizing this new decision by the end of the year, Metrokin said.

But United Tribes and other groups from the region are also pursuing a congressional law that would stop the Pebble mine, as well as other mining claims in the region outside the Pebble deposit.

U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski has said she will take further action to permanently protect the region from Pebble or other mining, and has said congressional legislation would provide the most lasting protection.

As part of the EPA proposal, the agency’s public comment period will include public meetings next month, including two meetings on June 16, a virtual meeting and a live meeting in Dillingham, the largest community in the region.

Alex DeMarban

Alex DeMarban is a longtime Alaska journalist who covers business, the oil and gas industries and general assignments. Reach him at 907-257-4317 or alex@adn.com.

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