May 12, 2017 - 07:53 AM EDT
BY DEVIN HENRY
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has revived a controversial proposed Alaska mining project previously blocked by Obama administration regulators.
The EPA and a mining firm on Friday announced a settlement in their legal dispute over the proposed Pebble Mine near Bristol Bay in southwest Alaska, setting the stage for an eventual permitting decision that could allow the gold and copper project to move forward.
Mine developer Pebble Limited Partnership sued the EPA in 2014 over the agency's decision to block the mine on environmental and tribal sovereignty grounds before the company had submitted its permit applications.
That decision ignited a legal dispute between the agency and Pebble Limited, as well as congressional probes into the validity of the EPA's action.
Republicans accused the agency of bias and improper consultation with the mine's opponents. But the EPA's Office of Inspector General reported last year that it found "no evidence of bias in how the EPA conducted the assessment" for the proposed mine, nor "that the EPA predetermined the outcome" of the project.
Under the terms of the settlement announced Friday, the EPA will withdraw its proposed rejection of the mine and Pebble will be able to file permit applications for it.
The EPA will not issue a recommendation on the mine until the Army Corps of Engineers issues a final environmental impact statement for the project.
The lack of both an environmental assessment and the permit applications means mining at Bristol Bay is still years away.
But the mine's backers celebrated Friday's decision as the end of an "unfortunate saga" and pledged to propose a "smaller project" than the potential development it was previously considering.
"We've asked for nothing more than fairness and due process under the law - the right to propose a development plan for Pebble and have it assessed against the robust environmental regulations and rigorous permitting requirements enforced in Alaska and the United States," said Ron Thiessen, the CEO of Pebble Partnership's parent company.
"Today's settlement gives us precisely that, the same treatment every developer and investor in a stable, first world country should expect."
Pebble faces waves of opposition in Alaska, including from tribes and local businesses who worry the project threatens thousands of fishing and outdoor recreation jobs in the region.
"Protecting Bristol Bay from the Pebble Mine has been a priority issue for the hook-and-bullet community for 10 years. This was a real test for President Trump, who said all the right things to sportsmen during the election," said Scott Hed, the director of the Sportsman's Alliance for Alaska.
"This is a direct assault on our values. America's hunters and anglers are extremely disappointed but we will not let up in the fight to protect Bristol Bay."
Key lawmakers in the state are against the project, as well. Alaska Gov. Bill Walker, an independent, opposes Pebble Mine, as does Alaska House Speaker Bryce Edgmon (D).
A ballot measure requiring the state Legislature approve a Bristol Bay project passed with 65 percent of the vote in 2014.
Edgmon told reporters on Thursday that recent polls show more than 80 percent of people in the region oppose the mine. He said he's "keenly disappointed" the EPA would agree to go back on its 2014 decision.
"The people of the Bristol Bay region don't need this kind of stress hanging over our heads once again and continuing on year after year," Edgmon said, according to the Alaska Dispatch News.
Updated at 12:10 p.m.