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Pebble Mine in Bristol Bay Could Be Back

Republicans want to reinstate the virtually defunct Pebble Mine proposal in the Bristol Bay region of Alaska, home of the world's biggest wild salmon run.
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As Scott Pruitt takes the helm of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), U.S. House Science, Space, & Technology Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas) is urging him to reconsider the Pebble Mine proposal in the Bristol Bay region of Alaska. Democrats have countered with a letter of their own, urging Pruitt to look at the three-year study that the EPA had conducted into the potential effects of such a mine. The project was shelved in 2014 after fierce local opposition, including from Native Alaskans, because of its threat to pristine habitat and a major wild sockeye salmon run.

Smith’s request was based not on the environmental safety of what would be the western hemisphere’s largest copper and gold pit mine, but on the assertion that the EPA under President Barack Obama had overstepped its bounds in stymying the project under Section 404(c) of the Clean Water Act. That section allows the EPA to “prohibit, restrict, deny or withdraw authorization for projects discharging dredged or fill material into waters of the U.S. whenever the agency finds ‘an unacceptable adverse effect on municipal water supplies, shellfish beds and fishery areas (including spawning and breeding areas), wildlife, or recreational areas,’ ” according to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

“The Committee recommends that the incoming Administration rescind the EPA’s proposed determination to use Section 404(c) in a preemptive fashion for the Pebble Mine in Bristol Bay, Alaska,” Smith’s February 22 letter read. “This simple action will allow a return to the long-established Clean Water Act permitting process and stop attempts by the EPA to improperly expand its authority. Moreover, it will create regulatory certainty for future development projects that will create jobs and contribute to the American economy.”

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The EPA’s logic was fueled by a “questionable scientific assessment that relied on predetermined conclusions developed by EPA officials,” the committee said in a press release also alleging that “EPA employees colluded with Pebble Mine opponents to stop this project.”

The Democrats’ letter, written by Science, Space & Technology Committee Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas 30th District), urged Pruitt to take into account the “factual history” of the EPA’s “appropriate use of the 404(c) process and to assess the claims in Smith’s letter “in an objective and unbiased manner.”

Johnson noted studies that had called it a bad investment and said it would jeopardize the largest sockeye salmon fishery in the world. A three-year-long, peer-reviewed study undertaken by the EPA, she said, had found potential adverse impacts on the environment, public health and livelihood of people in the region.

Also in play is a bill, H.R. 1179, that has been introduced in the House of Representatives to kill Section 404(c) entirely by proposing its repeal.

“H.R. 1179 guts EPA’s authority,” the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) said in a statement. “It promotes the profits of a foreign mining company over a $1.5 billion annual commercial fishery that supports 14,000 sustainable American jobs. And it completely ignores the will of Alaskans, a strong majority of whom oppose the Pebble Mine. (Opposition in the Bristol Bay region is even stronger, where over 80 percent of residents and 85 percent of commercial fisherman oppose the Pebble Mine.)”

Opening up the xx-square-mile region to mining would fly in the face of scientific evidence, said 360 scientists and researchers in a 2014 letter to the EPA. The Obama administration took other measures to protect the region, declaring Bristol Bay off limits to new oil and gas drilling leases in 2014. The restrictions imposed on the project by the EPA in summer 2014 were challenged in court, but the project has essentially been stalled since then.

Northern Dynasty, the Canadian company that would build the mine, said it could make the project safe. It has spent big money so far to try and get the Pebble Mine project through.

"All we have ever asked is for the opportunity to propose a comprehensive development plan for the Pebble Project, and to have it fairly and objectively reviewed against the extremely rigorous environmental standards and permitting requirements enforced in Alaska and the United States. Today, we are one step closer to earning that opportunity,” said Northern Dynasty President and CEO Ron Thiessen in a statement after Smith’s committee wrote to Pruitt. "We thank the Committee and staff for its careful and consistent scrutiny of the troubling issues that have characterized the EPA's treatment of the Pebble Project over the years, and its commitment to the well-established federal and state permitting process under the Clean Water Act and National Environmental Policy Act."