In a reversal, U.S. EPA will proceed with proposed restrictions on the Pebble gold and copper mine project in the Bristol Bay area of southwestern Alaska, the agency said today.
Last May, EPA entered into a legal settlement with Pebble developers to allow them to begin the Clean Water Act permitting process. The agency soon after moved to consider undoing Obama-era proposed development limits.
"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," Administrator Scott Pruitt said in a statement today.
"Until we know the full extent of that risk, those natural resources and world-class fisheries deserve the utmost protection," he said. "Today's action allows EPA to get the information needed to determine what specific impacts the proposed mining project will have on those critical resources."
Obama administration critics, including Pruitt, have said EPA should not have acted against Pebble prior to the project entering permitting.
EPA today said Pruitt was "following through on his promise to restore the rule of law" and noted the Army Corps of Engineers is already reviewing the Pebble project.
"This decision neither deters nor derails the application process of Pebble Limited Partnership's proposed project. The project proponents continue to enjoy the protection of due process and the right to proceed," said EPA's release. "However, their permit application must clear a high bar, because EPA believes the risk to Bristol Bay may be unacceptable."
Mine opponents welcomed the move but remain skeptical of EPA under Pruitt.
"Today's announcement from EPA is a small step back from their support for the Pebble Mine project. It is clear that Administrator Pruitt is learning what Alaskans already know — the Pebble Limited Partnership should not be trusted," said Tim Bristol, executive director of the group Salmon State.
"However," he added, "this EPA has a long way to go in fixing the situation; that fact is they settled the lawsuit with Pebble, and they set aside seven years of scientific inquiry and analysis in order to pave the way for permitting."
Pebble said in a statement: "We believe we can demonstrate that we can responsibly construct and operate a mine at the Pebble Deposit that meets Alaska's high environmental standards. We will also demonstrate that we can successfully operate a mine without compromising the fish and water resources around the project."