Leaders at the Environmental Protection Agency immediately took steps to reverse a 2014 restriction against the controversial Pebble mine shortly after Gov. Mike Dunleavy and President Donald J. Trump met in Anchorage in late June and discussed mining issues, CNN is reporting.
Then a month later, on July 30, the agency formally announced it was striking the unusual measure, often called a “pre-emptive veto," that the EPA could employ to stop the copper and gold prospect.
The change in direction stunned agency scientists, who believed Trump was personally involved and that politics had taken precedence over studies that found the project could devastate the Bristol Bay salmon fishery, said the CNN report, posted late Friday.
The open-pit mine would be built about 200 miles southwest of Anchorage, straddling salmon-producing headwaters of the valuable fishery. The project pits fisherman, tribes and conservationists against the Pebble Limited Partnership, mining advocates and the Trump administration.
Dunleavy had pressed for the removal of the 2014 restriction in a March letter to the president, saying the threat of an EPA veto could hurt investment for other resource-development projects in Alaska. The two have met multiple times since the governor took office in December.
Following their June 26 meeting on Air Force One, when Trump made a refueling stop at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Dunleavy released a video on social media saying Trump is “doing everything he can to work with us on our mining concerns."
With that veto threat removed, the EPA is now following a standard approach, working with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as that federal agency evaluates a development plan submitted in 2017 by mine developer Pebble Limited Partnership.
The same day Trump and Dunleavy met, the EPA had publicly announced it would begin reconsidering whether to withdraw the restriction on Pebble. EPA scientists believed they would have “weeks or months” to review the previous findings, CNN reported, citing EPA sources who asked to remain anonymous.
But immediately after Trump and Dunleavy met, CNN reported, EPA headquarters invited scientists to attend a video conference the following day, CNN said. The agency’s scientists were shocked when they were informed in the June 27 meeting that the agency would no longer oppose the mine.
“EPA insiders tell CNN that the timing of the agency’s internal announcement suggests Trump was personally involved in the decision,” the news organization said.
EPA General Counsel Matthew Leopold said in the video conference “that a decision had been made to lift the restriction on the Pebble Mine proposal and that no further consideration of the matter was needed," CNN reported.
"I was dumbfounded," an EPA source said, according to CNN. "We were basically told we weren't going to examine anything. We were told to get out of the way and just make it happen."
EPA spokesman Michael Abboud confirmed “Leopold participated in an internal meeting" about Pebble on June 27, contradicting his prior statement that Leopold had not attended a meeting about Pebble that day, CNN reported.
Bristol Bay leaders were also shocked by the EPA’s reversal. They threaten to sue, saying years of study that went into the 2014 proposal has been tossed aside for a political decision.
A spokesman for Dunleavy, as well Alaska’s congressional delegation, could not immediately be reached for comment.