Pointing at Pebble, EPA leader looks to rein in agency’s veto power

EPA leader Scott Pruitt cited the Pebble Mine in a memo asking his agency to change how it uses the Clean Water Act to regulate projects. (US Environmental Protection Agency photo)

Citing the proposed Pebble Mine, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency wants to rein in his agency’s regulatory power.

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In a sweeping memo released today, EPA administrator Scott Pruitt asked the agency to propose changes to how it uses the Clean Water Act.

In the memo, Pruitt wrote that the action would fit in with his larger aim to “ensure predictability and regulatory certainty and take actions based upon a comprehensive understanding of the facts.”

The proposal would eliminate EPA’s ability to preemptively or retroactively veto permits for waste discharge in waterways, restricting the agency’s ability to step in and regulate large projects. However, the proposal is far from final.

Under the Obama administration, EPA used its authority under Section 404(c) of the Clean Water Act to propose restrictions on the Pebble Mine before the developer applied for a permit with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

That essentially halted the controversial project until last year, when EPA reached a settlement with Pebble under the Trump administration. Then in January, Pruitt suspended the agency’s move to reconsider the Obama-era proposal, saying Pebble may pose an “unacceptable” risk to Bristol Bay, home to one of the most valuable salmon fisheries in the world.

But in the memo released today, Pruitt wrote, “I am concerned that the mere potential of the EPA’s use of its section 404(c) authority before or after the permitting process could influence investment decisions and chill economic growth by short-circuiting the permitting process.”

Pebble Mine opponents condemned the memo.

“This is a reckless proposal that ignores the plain text of the Clean Water Act. If enacted, this would hamstring EPA’s ability to safeguard our streams and fisheries from the dumping of many tons of toxic waste,” Jon Devine, director of federal water policy at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said in a statement.

Norm Van Vactor, a spokesperson for the Bristol Bay Economic Development Corp., said in an email his organization is “very disappointed” by the news, adding, “this has not been an authority that has been misused in the past.”

But Mike Heatwole of Pebble Limited Partnership praised the memo, saying it would allow a “full, fair and rigorous” environmental review.

“We’re calling today’s announcement a strong policy decision regarding the many problems with preemptive and retroactive 404(c) actions,” Heatwole said in an email.

However, EPA indicated it’s too soon to say how the decision could affect the fate of the proposed Pebble Mine.

“It is premature to say how any changes to the existing regulation would impact current or existing actions,” an EPA spokesperson said in a statement.

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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