Pebble opponents sue Trump administration over EPA reversal

The proposed site of the Pebble Mine (Photo by Jason Sear / KDLG)

A coalition of Pebble Mine opponents announced Tuesday that they are suing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

The group is challenging EPA’s decision this summer to throw out what some saw as a “preemptive veto” of the proposed copper and gold mine, claiming the agency did not properly justify the decision.

“The federal government has a trust responsibility to protect the resources that our cultures depend on, and eliminating the proposed protections violates that responsibility,” Bristol Bay Native Association president and CEO Ralph Andersen said at a press conference announcing the lawsuit Tuesday morning, which was held outside the federal courthouse in Anchorage.

Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association executive director Andy Wink called the EPA’s now-revoked proposal “an important tool for safeguarding the world’s most valuable salmon fishery,” adding, “BBRSDA cannot allow it to be cast aside without due process.”

Representatives of the groups suing EPA speak at a press conference on Oct. 8. From left to right, they are Bristol Bay Native Association president and CEO Ralph Andersen, Bristol Bay Reserve Association board member Mike LaRussa, Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association executive director Andy Wink, United Tribes of Bristol Bay deputy director Lindsay Layland , Bristol Bay Economic Development Corporation president and CEO Norm Van Vactor and Robin Samuelsen of the Curyung Tribal Council. (Photo by Elizabeth Harball/Alaska’s Energy Desk)

An EPA Region 10 spokesperson declined to comment on the litigation.

Pebble Partnership spokesman Mike Heatwole said in an interview the company believes the lawsuit is without merit and will be dismissed.

“The ask is to return the preemtive veto on the project, which many Alaskans, including a range of trade and business associations, viewed as really poor and precedent-setting public policy,” Heatwole said.

It’s the latest in a complicated series of events involving the federal agency, the Pebble Limited Partnership and the mine’s opponents. The coalition that filed the lawsuit is made up of five groups based in Bristol Bay, in the same watershed where the mine would be built.

EPA, during the Obama administration in 2014, proposed putting restrictions on the project, citing its potential impact on Bristol Bay’s rich salmon fishery. That effectively halted the effort to build the mine.

But the mine began moving ahead again under the Trump administration. EPA reached a settlement with Pebble in 2017. That allowed another federal agency, the Army Corps of Engineers, to start the permitting process for the mine.

EPA formally revoked its Obama-era restrictions in July, calling them “outdated.” It was a significant victory for Pebble, which viewed the proposal as government overreach.

But EPA also has taken a few actions under Trump that have buoyed Pebble opponents, such as sending a letter criticizing the Army Corps of Engineers’ draft environmental review earlier this summer. The mine opponents cite those comments in their lawsuit filed Tuesday.

In addition to the Bristol Bay Native Association and the Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association, the other plaintiffs are the United Tribes of Bristol Bay the Bristol Bay Reserve Association and Bristol Bay Economic Development Corporation.

This story has been updated.