The EPA Plays Offense

Is the Pebble Mine dead? Not quite.


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“The sun is shining in Alaska.” That’s what Tim Bristol said today. Bristol is the director of Trout Unlimited’s Alaska program, and for the past few years he’s been a leader in a fight against a proposed gold and copper mine in Bristol Bay, the world’s largest sockeye salmon fishery. This morning Bristol was surprised by news that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), under new director Gina McCarthy, announced that it was using the Clean Water Act to begin a process that could block Pebble Mine entirely.

“The Pebble Mine would likely have significant and irreversible negative impacts on the Bristol Bay watershed and its abundant salmon fisheries,” said McCarthy. “It’s why EPA is taking this step forward in our effort to ensure protection for the world’s most productive salmon fishery from the risks it faces from what could be one of the largest open pit mines on earth. This process is not something the agency does very often, but Bristol Bay is an extraordinary and unique resource.” Soon afterward, celebratory press releases started trickling in from environmental and sportsman’s organizations, among them Trout Unlimited, the Teddy Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, and the American Fly Fishing Trade Association.

The Pebble Mine has been overshadowed in recent years by the battles over the Keystone XL Pipeline, but for a time it was the major national environmental issue among the outdoors set. The battle dates back more than a decade. Northern Dynasty Minerals, out of Vancouver, started exploratory digging in the mine in the early 2000s. Anglo American partnered with Northern Dynasty in 2007 and invested more than $500 million in the project over the next six years.

Meanwhile environmentalists started to make hay in the form of a group called Save Bristol Bay, which was backed by groups like Trout Unlimited and companies like Orvis. In 2007 Colorado independent filmmakers Ben Knight and Travis Rummel made an investigative documentary titled Red Gold about the project, and media attention snowballed. (Outside covered the proposed mine in 2009.)  Tiffany’s threw its weight behind Save Bristol Bay, announcing it wouldn’t source any products from Pebble Mine if the project moved forward. Last fall, Anglo American pulled out of the project entirely, forfeiting its massive investment in the proposed mine.

So does today’s news sound the death knell for the Pebble Mine? Not quite. The EPA’s announcement—based on the findings of a report the the agency conducted following a complaint brought by a group of native tribes—essentially amounts to a moratorium on the issuing of a mining permit. It’s all a bit tricky, because Northern Dynasty, owner of the Pebble Limited Partnership, has yet to technically apply for its mining permit. As Trout Unlimited’s Bristol said, “There’s a ton of work to do, and those who support mining in Alaska will attack this in every way they can. The game’s not over.”

This afternoon I reached Tom Collier, the chief executive officer of the Pebble Limited Partnership. A longtime Washington, DC lawyer and former chief of staff of the Interior Department during the Clinton administration, Collier inherited the Pebble battle earlier this month, when he took over from departing CEO John Shively. While Collier acknowledged that he didn’t see today’s news coming, he downplayed the announcement.

“I don’t see it as particularly significant,” he said. Collier called it “the beginning of a process” that would eventually “drive a stake through the heart of any notion that the EPA ought to put any restrictions on Pebble Mine.” He claimed that the report on which McCarthy based her announcement was flawed. His group has requested an investigation by the EPA’s Inspector General into that report, called a watershed assessment, which Collier said had a “predetermined result.” He also said, “I don’t think they have the legal authority to do this. In 42 years of the Clean Water Act the EPA has never vetoed a significant project before it’s applied for a permit. They’re way out on a limb.”

All of this pretty much exactly echoed what Collier told Bloomberg Businessweek today, so it’s probably a fair assumption that Pebble’s response strategy is a vigorous offense. When I asked TU’s Bristol about Collier, he said, “The guy has no experience in the state. It’s full-on insider DC politics.” Was any celebration in order? “I’m going to crack a beer at happy hour today,” he said “and then get back to work.”