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Uncertainty swirls around Pebble Mine after EPA surprise

Uncertainty swirls around Pebble Mine after EPA surprise
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The surprise decision by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to reverse course on consideration of a precious minerals mine in Alaska has left supporters and opponents of the project scrambling to figure out what comes next.

EPA Administrator Scott PruittEdward (Scott) Scott PruittTrump EPA official indicted in Alabama House flip creates big headache for Zinke High stakes for Dems' green agenda in midterms MORE had moved in May to withdraw the Obama administration’s proposal to block the mine under the Clean Water Act. But in a statement on Friday evening, he scrapped those plans, warning the project could cause “significant and irreversible harm” to fishing habitats near Bristol Bay in Alaska, which harbors the world’s largest sockeye salmon fishery.

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“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,” Pruitt said in a statement.

While the EPA is putting the project on hold to take comments from the public, it also said it would continue to consider proposals from Pebble Limited Partnership, which is seeking to build the mine.

“We’ve filed our application, it’s been accepted as complete by the [Army Corps of Engineers],” said Tom Collier, CEO of the Pebble Limited Partnership. “That process is moving along, and it’s moving along efficiently and effectively.”

Although Northern Dynasty Minerals, the Canadian-based owner of Pebble, and the project’s proponents deny anything has changed — pointing to a settlement agreement last year in which the EPA agreed to hold off on any final decision — the company’s stock plummeted following Pruitt’s decision.

The partnership had also faced financial woes until the company secured new investors.

Last month, it submitted its first permit application for the mine to the Army Corps. Under the Clean Water Act, the Army Corps has primary responsibility for issuing the permit, though the EPA has veto power over the decision.

Developers fought the Obama administration to build the mine, at one point suing the EPA after it proposed stopping the mine before developers had even filed
permits. Pebble alleged that the EPA violated a law prohibiting backroom dealing; the case was settled as part of last year’s pact.

Supporters of the project hoped for a different approach from the Trump administration. Executives associated with the project met with Pruitt in May, shortly before he overturned the Obama-era proposals.

Pruitt’s decision Friday stops short of preventing the project from proceeding, since there’s no final action and the EPA will take public comments on what to do next. The vast majority of the comments to date have been negative, including ones coming from Alaskans.

“Beyond the public engagement pieces of the process, [the Trump administration has] a responsibility to consult tribal governments,” said Alannah Hurley, the executive director of the United Tribes of Bristol Bay. “Our tribes are going to make sure and push to make sure that’s happening and make sure our voices are at the table, but also make sure that this is the most thorough and rigorous process, highlighting the science that already exists.”

Proponents of the mine say the scientific research that the EPA has conducted of the project is biased and unsound. But those who are fighting to stop the project say the Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment was a rigorous review involving multiple years of research by experts in the field.

“The settlement [the EPA had] with the Pebble Limited Partnership did not undercut the watershed assessment or restrict its use. We believe it needs to be front-and-center and part of the context against which the Pebble proposal is assessed,” said Daniel Cheyette, a lawyer for the Bristol Bay Native Corporation. “In addition, I think we also will be focusing on making sure the voices of Alaskans are heard.”

The fight over the project pits the mining industry against environmentalists, the fishing industry and Alaskans, who fear damage to recreation, fishing jobs and the overall habitat.

In addition to its small shop of in-house lobbyists, Pebble Limited Partnership has three lobbying firms on retainer: the powerhouse Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, Van Ness Feldman and a lobbying firm with former Rep. Richard Pombo (R-Calif.) on its roster.

Once Pebble received its new investor, First Quantum Minerals, it exponentially ratcheted up its lobbying expenditures from recent years. Pebble spent $1.2 million on lobbying in 2013, but pulled back, spending $395,000 in the following year and an average of $550,000 each year in 2015 and 2016.

In President TrumpDonald John TrumpDeath toll in Northern California wildfire rises to 48: authorities Graham backs bill to protect Mueller Denham loses GOP seat in California MORE’s first year in office, the company doled out $790,000 to advocate before the federal government, including $750,000 spent on Akin Gump lobbyists.

Pombo’s firm, Gavel Resources, took Collier, the CEO of the partnership, around the Interior Department earlier this month, meeting with Deputy Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, a former lobbyist Pombo has known for years.

Pombo told The Hill he did so to introduce the company to Trump administration officials. Interior and its agencies are likely to play a role in the environmental review of the project. There are no further meetings planned with Interior, he says, because it’s unclear what will happen next in the process.

Although Pruitt has reversed his initial stance on the project, its developers remain undeterred.

“I was surprised at some of the commentary,” Collier said, referring to Pruitt’s written statement that “any mining projects in the region likely pose a risk to the abundant natural resources that exist there.”

“What he decided to do is entirely consistent with what the plan has been. He referenced everything he said in his decision to suspend the withdrawal, on the fact that we had an absolute, unfettered, unabated right … to pursue permitting from the Corps of Engineers through May of 2021,” he added. Last year’s settlement prohibits the EPA from taking final action on the project until that date or until the Army Corps finishes its environmental review.

But opponents of the mine are similarly undeterred. While pleased with Pruitt’s action, they plan to keep the pressure up by submitting input when the new comment period is open, lobbying investors in Pebble to drop out and amplifying objections from Alaskans.

“Pebble has been deceiving Alaskans for a long time, so Alaskans are not going to let their guard down on this until the Pebble Mine is officially over. Alaskans will continue to fight this mine until the communities and the jobs and the businesses are no longer at risk,” said Nelli Williams, Alaska program director for Trout Unlimited, a conservation group focused on fish.

The League of Conservation Voters is more suspicious of Pruitt.

“We’re not at all reassured by Scott Pruitt’s newfound concern for the devastating impacts the Pebble Mine would have on Bristol Bay and the wildlife and communities that depend on it,” said Madeleine Foote, the group’s legislative representative.

“We’ll continue to work with our allies in Alaska and around the country to push the administration to deny the necessary permits and declare this pristine natural treasure off limits to mining and other disastrous development indefinitely,” Foote said.