The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has backed down from a confrontation with the Army Corps of Engineers over the proposed Pebble Mine in Southwest Alaska.
The move came in the form of a letter that fell far short of what mine opponents hoped for.
The letter has no binding impact on whether the Corps grants Pebble’s dredge and fill permit. But Pebble watchers consider it an indicator of how much bureaucratic muscle the EPA intends to flex.
The Corps is the lead agency considering whether to grant a permit for the mine, which would be upstream from Bristol Bay. A decision is likely this summer.
The EPA has raised numerous concerns and issued a letter last year saying the project “may” result in substantial and unacceptable impacts to “aquatic resources of national importance.” That so-called “may” letter was a specific step in a sequence established to deal with interagency disagreements over Clean Water Act permits.
Thursday was the deadline for the next step in that sequence, a letter saying the project “will” result in those unacceptable impacts. That would have elevated the dispute. But EPA issued a different letter.
EPA Region 10 Administrator Chris Hladick thanked the Corps for its cooperation in addressing his agency’s concerns.
The Corps announced last week that the least damaging route for bringing the ore out of Pebble would be around the north side of Lake Iliamna.
Hladick wrote that EPA will continue to assess its concerns. He said the selected route “may well contribute to the permanent loss” of more than 100 miles of streams and other wetlands totaling more than 2,000 acres.
Related: EPA says report on Pebble Mine lacks detail, likely underestimates risks to water quality
If the Corps grants the permit, the EPA has the authority to veto it, but mine opponents say the new letter makes that look less likely.
Pebble Limited Partnership thinks so, too.
“Today’s decision … gives us more reason to believe that there will be no veto,” Pebble CEO Tom Collier said in a written statement. “This is consistent with our observation that
(the Corps) and EPA, and the other cooperating agencies, have been working well together to resolve all outstanding issues.”