EPA Takes New Look at Mining in Bristol Bay Watershed

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt has suspended withdrawal of proposed restrictions for hard rock mining of the Pebble deposit in Alaska’s Bristol Bay region and will solicit additional public comment on the impact of mining applications.

Pruitt said the decision neither deters nor derails the application process of Pebble Limited Partnership’s proposed project, but that their permit application must clear a high bar, because the EPA believes the risk to Bristol Bay may be unacceptable.

Pruitt said on January 26 that based on hearing directly from stakeholders and others in Alaska that the EPA would leave the proposed restrictions in place while the agency gathers more information on the potential impact of the copper, gold and molybdenum mine on the world class salmon fisheries and natural resources of this region of Southwest Alaska.

“…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,” Pruitt wrote. “Until we know the full extent of that risk, those natural resources and world-class fisheries deserve the utmost protection. This action, “will allow EPA to get the information needed to determine what specific impacts the proposed mining project will have on those critical resources.”

“EPA has serious concerns about the impacts of mining activity in the Bristol Bay watershed,” Pruitt said. “From public comments to community meetings, stakeholders stressed the importance of balancing a singular mine venture with the risk to one of the world’s largest commercial fisheries. Second, for EPA not to express an environmental position at this stage would be disingenuous.”

Alaska Gov. Bill Walker, Alaska Speaker of the House Bryce Edgmon and entities representing both the Alaska Native community and fishing industries welcomed the announcement, while the Pebble Limited Partnership (PLP) said the news does not change its approach toward the permitting process.

Ron Thiessen, president and chief executive officer of Canada’s Northern Dynasty Minerals Ltd., of which the PLP is a subsidiary, expects that the permitting process for Pebble will “advance expeditiously over the next few years and that the draft and final environmental impact statement will be completed upon which final permitting decisions for the Pebble project will be made.”

Norm Van Vactor, chief executive officer of the Bristol Bay Economic Development Corp. said that the PLP “had painted a picture to its shareholders that they seemingly have the EPA in their back pocket and this clearly demonstrates that they don’t. It looks like even for the Trump administration that there can be mines that are too toxic,” he said.