EPA Suspends Withdrawal of Proposed Mining Restrictions
By MARY KAUFFMAN
January 27, 2018
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt is following through on his promise to restore the rule of law and process to the previous Obama Administration’s action to restrict mining in Bristol Bay, Alaska.
In 2014, the Obama Administration issued what was widely considered a preemptive veto of the Pebble Limited Partnership mining project. This effectively brought the mine’s application process and, due process to a halt. Litigation resulted and continued into this Administration.
In May of 2017, Pruitt took the first step to rescind this due process denial and allow the Pebble mine proponents to proceed and progress through the process. EPA received over one million comments from interested stakeholders. Administrator Pruitt’s action allowed the litigation to be resolved and the proponent’s application was allowed to finally move forward. That application is proceeding through the Army Corps’s permitting process.
As a result of Pruitt’s actions last summer, proponents of mining in the region were allowed to apply for a permit with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. However, after hearing directly from stakeholders and the people of Alaska, EPA is now suspending its process to withdraw those proposed restrictions, and will be leaving them in place while the Agency receives more information on the potential mine’s impact on the region’s world-class fisheries and natural resources.
Last week's action is important for several reasons. First, EPA has serious concerns about the impacts of mining activity in the Bristol Bay Watershed. From public comments to community meetings, stakeholders stressed the importance of balancing a singular mine venture with the risk to one of the world’s largest commercial fisheries. Second, for EPA not to express an environmental position at this stage would be disingenuous.
“We have restored process, reviewed comments, and heard from a variety of stakeholders on whether to withdraw the proposed restrictions in the Bristol Bay watershed,” Administrator Scott Pruitt said. “Based on that review, it is my judgment at this time that any mining projects in the region likely pose a risk to the abundant natural resources that exist there. Until we know the full extent of that risk, those natural resources and world-class fisheries deserve the utmost protection. [Friday's] action allows EPA to get the information needed to determine what specific impacts the proposed mining project will have on those critical resources.”
Governor Bill Walker on Friday offered the following statement in response to Administrator Scott Pruitt’s action: “I have spoken to Administrator Pruitt about the Pebble Mine Project many times in the past year, and I have shared with him my belief that in the Bristol Bay region we should prioritize the resource that has sustained generations and must continue to do so in perpetuity. I thank the Environmental Protection Agency and the Trump Administration for listening to my input, as well as the input of thousands of Alaskans who oppose rescinding the EPA’s Bristol Bay assessment.”
Pruitt's decision on Friday willl neither deter nor derail the application process of Pebble Limited Partnership’s proposed project. The project proponents will continue to enjoy the protection of due process and the right to proceed. However, according to the EPA, their permit application must clear a high bar, because EPA believes the risk to Bristol Bay may be unacceptable.
EPA intends to solicit additional public comment on the impact of the mining application on the existing proposed determination to better inform that analysis.
“Administrator Pruitt is taking a balanced approach by allowing Pebble to enter the permitting process, while noting EPA’s duty to fully protect the region’s world-class fisheries,” said U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK). “With the company now having filed its application, I expect that a fair, rigorous, and transparent process will soon begin so that Alaskans can understand the impacts and risks, as well as the potential benefits associated with this project.”
Murkowski, the Chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, has worked with EPA to extend the comment period on its proposed withdrawal by 90 days. This was necessary to ensure that all Alaskan stakeholders, including commercial fishermen, would have an opportunity to weigh in. The agency also conducted public meetings in Dillingham and Iliamna in October 2017.
Northern Dynasty acknowledged the statement issued by the EPA that indicated the federal agency will continue to support Pebble's due process rights as agreed in the settlement, though the EPA has suspended withdrawal of a pre-emptive regulatory action under CWA 404(c) initiated at Pebble in July 2014.
"We expect the permitting process for Pebble to advance expeditiously over the next few years, and that a draft and final EIS will be completed upon which final permitting decisions for the Pebble Project will be made,"said Northern Dynasty President & CEO Ron Thiessen. "Ultimately, we believe the Pebble EIS will describe a project that protects clean water and the world-class fisheries of Bristol Bay, and presents the opportunity for substantial economic benefits for the people of the region and the state. We'd encourage all Alaskans and all interested stakeholders to participate fully in the thorough, objective and rigorous review of the Pebble Project."
The tens of millions of salmon that return to Bristol Bay each year fuel a $1.5 billion fishing economy, support 14,000 jobs, and dozens of businesses run by hard-working American families. Northern Dynasty Minerals, a Canadian mining company and principle backer of the Pebble Partnership, has proposed to build a massive open-pit mine that, if built, would be in the headwaters of rivers that supply nearly half of the world’s wild sockeye salmon, and in the heart of some of the world’s most sought-after destinations to fish and hunt.
Following years of extensive scientific analysis and public comment, the 2014 Proposed Determination recommended limiting the amount of mine waste that could be disposed of in rivers and wetlands in the heart of the Bristol Bay region's salmon-producing rivers because of high potential for major harm to fish, drinking water, and recreation, among other things. Sportsmen and women and dozens of Alaskan business owners commend the Environmental Protection Agency for recognizing the overwhelming importance of the Bristol Bay region and its salmon and waters.
Brian Kraft, owner of Alaska Sportsman’s Lodge and president of Katmai Service Providers (Anchorage and Iguigig, AK) said, “This is an encouraging step for many Alaskan businesses and families that depend on Bristol Bay salmon. The EPA made the right decision by listening to local people, dozens of Alaskan business owners, and sportsmen and women around the country. I am thankful the EPA has ensured that widely-supported restrictions on large-scale mining in Bristol Bay will remain an option to protect our fishery. Alaskans have known for years that the Pebble mine does not belong in Bristol Bay – it’s too big of a risk to our jobs, businesses, and a sport fishing paradise. It is reassuring to see the EPA acknowledge the uniqueness of this region, and the risks Pebble mine poses.”
“Nearly 60 million salmon returned to the rivers of Bristol Bay last year, and fisheries experts are predicting another incredible run this year. It’s good business sense to safeguard this region, which is an irreplaceable Alaskan and American asset. Preserving the Proposed Determination ensures that an important option to safeguard Alaskan families and businesses remains in play,” said Nanci Morris Lyon, owner of Bear Trail Lodge (King Salmon, AK).
“It’s reassuring to see the EPA Administrator acknowledge the uniqueness of this situation and the overwhelming and unprecedented number of comments supporting strong protections for the rivers of Bristol Bay," said John Holman, owner of No-See-Um Lodge (Kvichak River and Wasilla, AK. "It demonstrates that the EPA recognizes the depth and breadth of Alaskan opposition to a mine that would put American jobs and businesses at grave risk.”
Chris Wood, president and CEO of Trout Unlimited, said of the EPA's announcement, “For over a decade, millions of sportsmen and women have strongly opposed the Pebble mine proposal because of the massive threat it poses to salmon runs, and how it would significantly change the wild, remote experience people expect when they visit southwest Alaska. Bristol Bay is a sporting paradise. It is too valuable for Pebble to turn it into an industrial mining district. I am glad the EPA is maintaining the option of prohibiting industrial-scale mining in the heart of Bristol Bay salmon country as so many Alaskans and Americans requested.”
Under the terms of a May 2017 settlement agreement reached between Northern Dynasty's 100%-owned subsidiary Pebble Limited Partnership and the U.S. EPA, the federal agency agreed it will not advance any action under Section 404(c) of the Clean Water Act until a final EIS for the Pebble Project has been completed – so long as that occurs within four years of the settlement agreement and Pebble files permit applications within 30 months of the settlement agreement. Earlier this month, the Corps accepted as complete a CWA 404 permit application submitted by the Pebble Partnership in December 2017, and has initiated the EIS permitting process.
Friday's action by the EPA demonstrates the Agency’s commitment to both the rule of law and process, and upholding the EPA’s core mission of environmental stewardship.
The Army Corps of Engineers on January 5, 2018 received a mining permit application from Pebble.
The Pebble Project is located approximately 200 miles southwest of Anchorage in the Bristol Bay region. The deposit lies entirely within the Lake and Peninsula Borough, approximately 23,782 square miles of land which is home to some 1,500 people in 18 communities.
The area around Pebble was secured by the State of Alaska during the Cook Inlet Land Exchange of 1974 - a three-way land swap involving the federal government, the State and the Cook Inlet Region Inc. (CIRI), an Alaska Native regional corporation. The State of Alaska secured land including what is now Pebble, for its mineral potential.
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