EPA Suspends Withdrawal of Oversight of Pebble Mine

Pruitt reverses course on proposed withdrawal but decision carries no actual protection from dangerous mine

In an unexpected development late today, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt announced that, contrary to his formal proposal last fall, he has decided not to abandon proposed oversight of the massive Pebble Mine, an open pit copper and gold mine proposed for the headwaters of the greatest wild salmon fishery on Earth in Bristol Bay, Alaska:

“We have restored process, reviewed comments, and heard from a variety of stakeholders on whether to withdraw the proposed restrictions in the Bristol Bay watershed,” Administrator Scott Pruitt said. “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. Until we know the full extent of that risk, those natural resources and world-class fisheries deserve the utmost protection. 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.”

Today’s announcement is an outcome requested by the people of Bristol Bay in virtually unanimous comments. It’s an outcome requested by over a million public comments total—including 115,000 from NRDC members and activists—submitted formally in opposition to his proposal last fall. And it is an outcome grounded in Administrator Pruitt's explicit recognition of the risk posed by mining to the "abundant resources" of the region, including its "world-class fisheries [which] deserve the utmost protection."

But make no mistake: It fails to give Bristol Bay the actual protections that its people urgently need and have long requested. Today’s decision is good news not because the threat of the Pebble Mine to the region, its people, and its wildlife has now been lifted. Indeed, a May 2017 settlement with the mining company that limits EPA’s ability to restrict the project remains in place. 

It’s a positive step because, in the case of this specific regulatory action, Administrator Pruitt has listened to the people of Bristol Bay and done what they asked. He has denied the Pebble Partnership a categorical green light—the freedom from EPA oversight—that the company has long sought and has relentlessly promised to investors would be imminently forthcoming. 

What is needed now—and what the people of Bristol Bay have been asking EPA to do since 2010—is for the agency to exercise that authority by restricting and, ultimately, by stopping the Pebble Mine to ensure protection not only of the natural but of the economic resources that its development would put at risk. The Bristol Bay fishery is the economic and cultural heart and soul of the region, producing last summer alone some 60 million wild salmon. Every year it generates an estimated $1.5 billion in revenue, supporting some 14,000 jobs in a region that depends on that economic engine for its very survival. According to EPA’s own comprehensive assessment of risk, the Pebble Mine’s impact on the region could be “catastrophic.”

Today, along with the people of Bristol Bay, we celebrate a decision that deprives the Canadian-based mining company of the blank check from EPA that, since last May, the company has been eagerly anticipating it would cash. It is an action that validates the immutable human potential for redemption in the face of the relentless, naked avarice that the Pebble Mine and its investors represent.   

About the Authors

Joel Reynolds

Western Director, Senior Attorney, Marine Mammals, Oceans Division, Nature Program

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