The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Friday halted plans to withdraw proposed restrictions on mining activity near a major Alaska salmon fishery, drawing praise from opponents of the Pebble Mine project.
Last year, in settling a legal dispute with the Pebble Limited Partnership, which wants to build a copper and gold mine in Alaska’s Bristol Bay region, the EPA agreed to initiate a process to withdraw restrictions proposed during the Obama administration.
But in a release Friday, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt said based on comments the agency has received, “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,” he said.
About half of the world’s sockeye salmon is produced by Bristol Bay, the EPA has said.
Tom Collier, CEO of the Pebble partnership, said the EPA’s announcement does not deter the project. Pebble recently filed a permit application with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which will trigger an environmental review of the project.
“We believe we can demonstrate that we can responsibly construct and operate a mine at the Pebble deposit that meets Alaska’s high environmental standards,” he said in a release. “We will also demonstrate that we can successfully operate a mine without compromising the fish and water resources around the project.”
The restrictions on development proposed under President Barack Obama were never finalized; a judge had ordered the agency to stop work related to that process while the litigation between Pebble and the EPA played out.
The EPA said Friday’s announcement doesn’t derail the permit application process but said the application “must clear a high bar, because EPA believes the risk to Bristol Bay may be unacceptable.”
The agency said it plans to solicit additional public comment to help inform how it will proceed.
U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, a Republican, said Pruitt is taking a balanced approach that lets Pebble enter the permitting process but also acknowledges EPA’s duty to protect the region’s fisheries.
“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,” she said.
Alaska House Speaker Bryce Edgmon called Friday’s announcement “a landmark decision for Bristol Bay that heartens our resolve to bring this fight to a close and ensure Bristol Bay is protected for generations to come.”
Robert Heyano, president of United Tribes of Bristol Bay, said his group’s fight against Pebble is far from finished.
“But today’s decision, and all those who worked so tirelessly to get us here, will be celebrated,” he said in a statement.