EPA allows mine co. to pursue permits near Alaska bay

JUNEAU, Alaska — In a sharp reversal, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has cleared a way for a company to seek permits to develop a massive copper and gold deposit near the headwaters of a world-class salmon fishery in southwest Alaska.

As part of a court settlement with the Pebble Limited Partnership, the EPA agreed to begin the process of withdrawing proposed restrictions on development in the Bristol Bay region, an area that produces about half of the world’s sockeye salmon.

The agreement , signed Thursday but released on Friday, comes four months into the Trump administration, which supporters of the proposed Pebble Mine hoped would give it a fairer shake than they believed they received under President Barack Obama.

The mining industry has seen promising signs from the administration, including a willingness to take a different look at projects and to review regulations seen as overly burdensome, said Luke Popovich, a spokesman for the National Mining Association.

“I think the public is in no danger of seeing genuine environmental protection diminished,” he said. “We’re simply asking for a more efficient process.”

Environmental groups see the Pebble agreement as potentially giving a go-ahead to industry to challenge EPA actions or to seek permits about which they previously might have been uncertain.

“It obviously sends a psychological message to big mining companies that if they were nervous about getting permits in the past … that this is their golden opportunity to get their mine through the process,” said Brett Hartl, government affairs director for the Center for Biological Diversity environmental group.

Critics of the Pebble settlement called it a backdoor deal and a slap in the face to residents of the region who petitioned the EPA in hopes of securing environmental protections.

Pebble sued in federal court over what it claimed was EPA’s collusion with mine opponents to block the project, after an EPA study concluded large-scale mining posed significant risk to salmon in the Bristol Bay region and could adversely affect Alaska Natives in the region, whose culture is built around salmon. A review by EPA’s inspector general last year found no evidence that the agency predetermined the study’s outcome.

In a release, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt said the agreement “will not guarantee or prejudge a particular outcome, but will provide Pebble a fair process for their permit application and help steer EPA away from costly and time-consuming litigation.”

“We are committed to listening to all voices as this process unfolds,” Pruitt said.

Tom Collier, CEO of the Pebble partnership, said this is a different EPA than his company dealt with under Obama and is committed to “due process.”

“It’s a day for Pebble Mine to really have a new start,” Collier said.

Court documents showed the two sides had been exploring ways to resolve the case since August, when Obama was still in office.