In an apparent reversal, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reinstated development limits on a proposed mining project in the Bristol Bay area of Alaska.
In 2014, under President Barack Obama, EPA imposed restrictions on Pebble Limited Partnership’s (PLP) use of certain areas to dispose of waste from a proposed gold and copper mine. The agency also blocked the Army Corps of Engineers from allowing PLP to begin the formal permitting process.
PLP sued in federal court, arguing the EPA actions failed to follow proper procedures. In May 2017, under the direction of President Donald Trump’s EPA administrator, Scott Pruitt, the agency settled the lawsuit with PLP, allowing the company to begin the permitting process, and opened a public comment period on a proposal to withdraw the restrictions.
On January 26, 2018, EPA suspended the process of withdrawing the Obama-era restrictions stating the agency believed the mine posed significant risks of environmental harm which PLP would have to disprove in its environmental reviews required for permitting. Under the settlement agreement, EPA’s restrictions cannot be finalized until May 11, 2021 or until EPA provides public notice of a final Environmental Impact Statement issued by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on PLP’s permit application.
Concern for Rule of Law
In a press release announcing the decision, EPA and Pruitt framed the action as restoring the rule of law.
“EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt is following through on his promise to restore the rule of law and process to the previous Administration’s action to restrict mining in Bristol Bay, Alaska,” the statement said.
“We have restored process, reviewed comments, and heard from a variety of stakeholders on whether to withdraw the proposed restrictions in the Bristol Bay watershed,” the statement quoted Pruitt as saying. “Based on that review, 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.”
High Evidentiary Burden
EPA’s statement makes it clear PLP will have to overcome a significant presumption of harm if it is to gain EPA approval for the project.
“This decision neither deters nor derails the application process of Pebble Limited Partnership’s proposed project,” the EPA press release states. “The project proponents continue to enjoy the protection of due process and the right to proceed.
“However, their permit application must clear a high bar, because EPA believes the risk to Bristol Bay may be unacceptable.”
‘No Scientific Justification’
Jay Lehr, Ph.D., science director of The Heartland Institute, which publishes Environment & Climate News, says EPA’s position is not based on sound science.
“In the very beginning when the Obama-era EPA rejected the Pebble mine, I closely examined the studies done on Pebble,” Lehr said. “I found no scientific justification for blocking the project.
“EPA ignored the research showing mining could be done safely,” Lehr said. “Now Pruitt’s EPA is doing the same. I’ve been working on contamination problems my whole career, and nothing EPA says against the Pebble mine is supportable. EPA’s decision lacks merit.”
‘Weaponized Against Economic Progress’
Lehr says politics, not science, drove EPA’s decisions.
“EPA was weaponized against economic progress during the Obama years, and Trump and Pruitt are not even close to getting rid of all the EPA employees that should be terminated,” Lehr said. “The idea that there is a ‘deep state’ in so many federal agencies has some truth to it.
“The environmental left are zealots who will try to stop any industrial progress they can,” said Lehr. “Many of them are embedded deep within EPA, and Pruitt can fight them on only so many fronts.”
‘An Important Source of Revenue’
Alaska state Sen. John Coghill (R-Fairbanks) told Environment & Climate News mining has been important to Alaska historically.
“When Alaska became a state, all the subsurface minerals were granted to the state, not private landowners,” Coghill said. “This makes mining an important source of revenue for Alaska’s state government.
“At the same time, Alaska’s government has the same reasons to protect our natural assets, to be good stewards, as any state,” said Coghill. “Decades ago, the state selected Bristol Bay as a possible mining location because of the enormous mineral potential there, yet environmentalists have opposed that since the 1970s, so it’s not surprising the Pebble project is a hot-button issue.”
Balancing Competing Interests
Coghill said local residents have legitimate environmental concerns about the mine.
“There are a lot of people in Bristol Bay that are genuinely concerned about the fishery, and rightfully so,” said Coghill. “It’s a world-class fishery, and no Alaskan wants it to be harmed. Pebble has to prove they can mine that very rich deposit in a responsible way.”
Still, Coghill says, the fishing is seasonal and the area needs other sources of employment.
“The reality is the Bristol Bay fishery is a cyclical business, doing most of its business with Seattle, not other parts of Alaska, and as a result the fishery’s benefits are smaller than they’re being portrayed,” Coghill said. “They need other industries to supply jobs to people in that area.”
In addition, activists and politicians have exaggerated the environmental risks of the project, Coghill says.
“Unfortunately, the Pebble project is quite often mischaracterized as riskier than it is in reality, for which we can thank the Sierra Club.” Coghill said. “The trouble is the Obama administration’s preemption didn’t even allow Pebble to prove how minimal the environmental impact would be,” said Coghill. “Pruitt has acted responsibly by giving the mine’s owners a chance to prove the benefits outweigh the costs through the normal permitting process.”
Matt Kelly writes from Dallas, Texas.