Foes of Pebble Mine lose a round in court

Opponents of the Pebble mine project rallied in Anchorage in 2017. (Henry Leasia/Alaska Public Media)

Opponents of the Pebble Mine lost one of their lawsuits Friday, when a federal court judge ruled against them.

The case is about the so-called “pre-emptive veto” the Environmental Protection Agency issued during the Obama administration, before the Pebble Partnership filed its application for a proposed gold and copper mine in Southwest Alaska. 

Pebble’s federal permit application is now pending with the Army Corps of Engineers, and the EPA still has the right to veto the permit. Friday’s legal ruling does not diminish that power.

Pebble’s mine proposal has loomed over the region for years, but Pebble did not apply for a permit while Obama was president.

In 2014, the EPA decided to be proactive. It studied the ecology of the region, and looked at what was known about Pebble’s intentions. The agency issued a “proposed determination,” essentially saying the mine posed too great a threat to the salmon-rich waters of Bristol Bay.

Pebble and Alaska’s congressional delegation complained of government over-reach. They said EPA was trying to veto a project before ever seeing an application.

Pebble eventually did apply for a Clean Water Act permit, in 2017.

Then, last year, with Pebble’s application under review, the EPA said it would withdraw its proposed determination against the mine. Foes of the mine – Trout Unlimited, SalmonState and Bristol Bay Economic Development Corp. – sued.

RELATED: EPA says report on Pebble Mine likely underestimates risks

U.S. District Court Judge Sharon Gleason ruled Friday that the EPA could withdraw its proposed determination from 2014. Her decision was based on how much latitude government agencies have and what is subject to legal review, rather than the merits or dangers of the Pebble Mine.

Meanwhile, the Corps of Engineers says it will issue its final environmental impact statement on the project this summer, one of the last steps before issuing a decision on the permit. The EPA has said the science the Corps is relying on is inadequate and likely understates the harm to the bay. Greenwire reports the EPA continues to find fault with the data.