EPA head reverses course on Pebble, saying it may pose ‘unacceptable’ risk

In this 2011 photo, an exploration camp sits on top of the Pebble deposit, one of the largest undeveloped copper, gold and molybdenum deposits in the world. (Photo courtesy U.S. EPA)

In a surprise announcement today, the head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said the proposed Pebble Mine may pose an “unacceptable” risk to Bristol Bay.

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EPA administrator Scott Pruitt said the agency is suspending its effort to reverse an Obama-era proposal to put restrictions on the mine — a potential blow to the controversial project, which had been gaining momentum in recent months.

The decision isn’t final. EPA said Pebble Limited Partnership can still move forward with the permitting process for its gold and copper mine. Pebble submitted a permit application to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in December, after the company reached a settlement with the Trump administration last spring.

But in a statement, Pruitt said the Bristol Bay fisheries deserve protection.

“It is my judgement at this time that any mining projects in the region likely pose a risk to the abundant natural resources that exist there,” Pruitt said.

Pebble opponent Alannah Hurley of the United Tribes of Bristol Bay called the announcement “huge.”

“We are celebrating this decision in Bristol Bay today,” Hurley said. “This is confirmation that even the Pebble Mine is too toxic for the Trump administration.”

Governor Bill Walker also praised EPA’s decision, saying in a statement he’s conveyed to Pruitt his concerns about the mine “many times.”

Pebble spokesperson Mike Heatwole did not criticize Pruitt’s statement, saying only that EPA’s announcement doesn’t change the company’s plans to keep pushing ahead.

“The EPA confirmed that we have the right to participate in the normal, lawful permitting process under the Clean Water Act, and today’s news doesn’t change our approach,” Heatwole said.

EPA said it will continue gathering information on the mine’s potential impact on Bristol Bay, including more opportunity for public comment.

Elizabeth Harball is a reporter with Alaska's Energy Desk, covering Alaska’s oil and gas industry and environmental policy. She is a contributor to the Energy Desk’s Midnight Oil podcast series. Before moving to Alaska in 2016, Harball worked at E&E News in Washington, D.C., where she covered federal and state climate change policy. Originally from Kalispell, Montana, Harball is a graduate of Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

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