EPA settles with Pebble, clears permitting path for mine

Pebble Partnership proposes to build a mine in Southwest Alaska. Opponents say it would threaten salmon streams. Photo by Jason Sear, KDLG – Dillingham

UPDATE: 4:45 p.m. by Dave Bendinger, KDLG – Dillingham

The Environmental Protection Agency and the Pebble Limited Partnership announced this morning they have reached an agreement out of court to settle a lawsuit. Tom Collier is Pebble’s CEO.

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“What we were after in this settlement was a return to normalized permitting,” Collier said.

Under the terms of the agreement, EPA will no longer pursue the preemptive Clean Water Act restrictions proposed under the Obama Administration. Pebble will dismiss its lawsuits against the agency, and will prepare a mine plan and Environmental Impact Statement. The settlement said Pebble needs to begin the permit application within the next two and a half years, a timeline Collier said the company will meet.

“My goal is that we meet it by a long shot,” Collier said. “And then, the EPA cannot do anything under the Clean Water Act with respect to the project, until there’s a final EIS or until 48 months to the date of the settlement, whichever occurs first.”

In a written statement, EPA administrator Scott Pruitt said the decision does not guarantee or prejudge any outcome on Pebble.

Many of Pebble’s opponents had long backed the EPA and its unique effort to block large scale mining in the Bristol Bay watershed. United Tribes of Bristol Bay director Alannah Hurley gathered regional leaders to speak out against the deal Thursday, even before it was made public.

“We’re here today to express our great sense of betrayal and outrage as it appears that the Pebble Limited Partnership and EPA are set to announce a settlement concerning the proposed Clean Water Act protections our people have fought so hard for,” Hurley said.

Pebble’s many opponents, from environmentalists, to tribes, to commercial and sport fishing groups were swift to voice similar disappointment Friday. Many accused Pebble and EPA of using a backroom deal to undo the years of work that had been done with a lot of public input.

Collier said Pebble has a “progressive” mine plan to unveil soon that is smaller than many people will expect. He says the next goal is to line up a partner to financially back the project, then begin the permit process.

ORIGINAL POST: By Liz Ruskin, Alaska Public Media – Washington D.C.

The EPA has announced a new process that could let the Pebble Partnership develop a controversial mine at the headwaters of Bristol Bay.

The agency said Friday it will freeze an effort begun under the Obama Administration to pre-emptively block the mine. Pebble would have two and a half years to apply for a Clean Water Act permit. In return, Pebble has agreed to dismiss its lawsuits against the government.

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt said in a written statement the settlement provides a fair process for Pebble but does not guarantee the outcome. Pruitt also said the EPA understands “how much the community cares about this issue.”

The mine has passionate opponents, especially in Dillingham, where many see the project as a threat to salmon. Thursday, Bristol Bay leaders pledged to stop the mine wherever possible, in court or in the field, by lying in front of bulldozers.