US House committee urges EPA to drop opposition to Pebble mine

WASHINGTON — A U.S. House committee on Wednesday urged the new head of the Environmental Protection Agency to reverse the agency's plans to limit development at the proposed Pebble project in Alaska's Bristol Bay region.

In a letter to EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, chair of the House Science Committee, charged the agency with overstepping its statutory authority under President Barack Obama.

The committee has held hearings and conducted investigations into the EPA scientists involved in the scientific assessment that was the basis for the agency's decision. The agency's final action is on hold during a related court case.

The Pebble project has the potential to be one of the world's largest gold and copper mines. But the deposit sits at the headwaters of Bristol Bay, a spawning site for some of Alaska's most prized salmon fisheries.

The project has been the subject of controversy for more than a decade, and the Pebble Limited Partnership, owned by Northern Dynasty Minerals, has not yet applied for a permit from the Army Corps of Engineers. The EPA could effectively "veto" an Army Corps permit.

[Northern Dynasty fires back after report critical of Pebble prospect]

Given the committee's work, "as well as President Trump's commitment to swift and lawful permitting decisions, the Committee urges you to rescind the 2014 decision and pursue the regular order of permitting for this and all projects that require permits under Section 404(c)" of the Clean Water Act, Rep. Smith wrote.


Smith called the EPA's decision "unprecedented" and the scientific assessment "questionable."

"Using Section 404(c) in this preemptive fashion is a de facto veto of this specific project and establishes a dangerous precedent of expansive federal agency powers that may be used in the future to prevent projects that would contribute positively to the American economy," Smith said.

Northern Dynasty President and CEO Ron Thiessen said the letter offered hope  the project could eventually move forward and thanked Smith and the committee for its efforts on the company's behalf.

Erica Martinson

Erica Martinson is a former reporter for the Anchorage Daily News based in Washington, D.C.