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Judge puts brakes on EPA’s action against Alaska’s Pebble Mine

To transport ore and equipment, the gold and copper Pebble Mine would require a 104-mile road along Alaska’s Pedro Bay, above, and Lake Iliamna, the state’s largest body of fresh water, cutting through undeveloped forest and wetlands.
To transport ore and equipment, the gold and copper Pebble Mine would require a 104-mile road along Alaska’s Pedro Bay, above, and Lake Iliamna, the state’s largest body of fresh water, cutting through undeveloped forest and wetlands. MCT

A federal judge has issued a preliminary injunction blocking the Environmental Protection Agency from taking action against a massive Alaska mining project that the agency says could be catastrophic for the best run of wild salmon remaining on the planet.

Fishermen in Washington state and Alaska, along with tribal groups, environmentalists, chefs and even jewelers have fought the proposed Pebble Mine for years and thought it dead. But the ruling gives at least some temporary hope to the Canadian developers of the project.

The ruling by Judge Russel Holland stops the EPA from taking action until he makes a decision on Pebble’s lawsuit claiming the agency broke the law to stop the mine.

“We expect the case may take several months to complete,” Pebble Partnership CEO Tom Collier said Tuesday after the U.S. District Court ruling in Anchorage. “This means that, for the first time, EPA’s march to pre-emptively veto Pebble has been halted.”

The copper mining project has turned into one of the nation’s biggest environmental battles. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., said the mine could threaten 14,000 fishing jobs. EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said it could do “significant and irreversible” harm to the wild salmon. McCarthy announced plans this summer to use Clean Water Act authority to impose severe restrictions on the mine.

Pebble alleges in its lawsuit that the EPA improperly collaborated with opponents of the mine to devise strategies and scientific justifications for blocking the project. The lawsuit claims the EPA secretly relied on mine critics to help the agency research and prepare a “patently biased” environmental assessment that determined the project could be devastating for the salmon of Bristol Bay.

“Instrumental to this scheme was EPA’s clandestine use of the de facto advisory committees – made up of individuals and groups who have been vehemently opposed to any mining of the Pebble deposit – to help the agency plan and then implement unprecedented steps designed to guarantee that no mining of the Pebble deposit would ever take place,” the company’s lawsuit claims.

The judge’s decision to issue a preliminary injunction indicates he thinks Pebble has a chance to prove its case. But EPA spokeswoman Jennifer Colaizzi said Tuesday that the ruling doesn’t mean the judge is going to side with the mining company in the end.

“EPA hopes the litigation is resolved expeditiously so the agency can move forward with its regulatory decision-making,” she said in an email.

The judge’s ruling is a rare victory for the embattled project. Mining giants Anglo American and Rio Tinto have abandoned the project, leaving the Canadian firm Northern Dynasty Minerals hoping to find a new partner to provide the needed financial backing.

Mine opponents said it will take more than such a procedural ruling to revive the project. Tim Bristol, program director for Trout Unlimited, said the judge rejected two of Pebble’s three arguments and is making Pebble rewrite the other one before he considers it.

“This decision is far from damning, but it does nonetheless represent an unfortunate example of Pebble throwing up legal and procedural roadblocks against scientific fact and the will of Alaskans, which has consistently spoken out against Pebble Mine,” he said in a written statement.

Alannah Hurley, executive director of United Tribes of Bristol Bay, said the judge’s ruling creates a “cloud of uncertainty” in the region.

“It is unfortunate that Judge Holland does not see harm in delaying a final decision that would provide our residents the peace of mind they have been waiting on for nearly a decade,” she said.

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