By Carey Restino
The battle between the developers who want to build a large-scale mine in the Bristol Bay watershed and the federal agency that is expected to issue a ruling to stop them continued last week as the Pebble Partnership filed a lawsuit against the Environmental Protection Agency.
The partnership seeks an injunction from the courts to stop what it is calling a pre-emptive veto of the proposed Pebble Mine under Section 404(c) of the Clean Water Act.
After several years of study, the Environmental Protection Agency announced this spring that it intended to take action protect the Bristol Bay wild salmon fishery. The EPAs Watershed Assessment Study concluded that a mine of the scale proposed by the Pebble Partnership would cause irreversible harm to the fishery, even without a major mine failure.
The mine backers, however, say the EPA is overstepping its bounds with the action, setting a dangerous precedent by taking action against a project before any permit applications outlining the mine plans have been filed.
“Simply put, EPA has repeatedly ignored detailed comments that we, the State of Alaska and others have made about this massive federal overreach and continues to advance an unprecedented pre-emptive regulatory action against the Pebble Project that vastly exceeds its Clean Water Act authority,” said Tom Collier, Pebble Partnership CEO in a statement. “If EPA ultimately vetoes Pebble before a development plan is proposed or evaluated through the comprehensive federal and state permitting processes, the precedent established will have significant long-term effects on business investment in this state and throughout the country.”
Many in the mining and development field, as well as the Parnell administration and Sen. Lisa Murkowski, agree with Collier, calling the EPA’s action an overreach of federal authority on state lands. Of particular issue to mine supporters is the fact that no official plans have been filed with respect to the mine. The EPA, in its watershed assessment, did not specifically analyze the impacts of the proposed Pebble Mine, but did base some if its study on a potential mine of the scope described to Northern Dynasty shareholders.
In its legal filings, the partnership asked the court to mandate that the EPA suspend its pre-emptive 404(c) process and allow the project to be reviewed by federal and state agencies.
Opponents of the mine, which include many in the Bristol Bay region, argue, however, that the value of the fishing resource in Bristol Bay warrants the federal action.
Trout Unlimited, among the many groups that called for the EPA to take action, said in a release that the challenge is a “last-ditch effort” to save a doomed project. The Pebble Partnership suffered two major blows last winter when its primary investors pulled out despite taking huge monetary losses.
“Clearly, this is a last ditch effort from a company which now has no major mining experience on its team and has lost at every step of the way. It’s ridiculous that PLP is using resources to file a lawsuit but continues to refuse to apply for official permits after promising to do so for nearly a decade,” said Tim Bristol, the Alaska program manager for Trout Unlimited in a statement. “The fact is, (the Pebble Limited Partnership) can apply for a permit today, but they refuse to do so because they will have to reveal to the public once again that they will build a colossal open pit mine, impact wetlands and waterways, destroy salmon habitat and threaten thousands of jobs and unique way of life.”
Even those opposed to the EPA action, such as Murkowski, have questioned the fact that the partnership has yet to reveal its development plan despite years of study and millions of dollars in investment.
Meanwhile, the Pebble Partnership continues to seek a new major mining partner to replace the project’s primary funders, Anglo American and Rio Tinto, which pulled out last year.