A federal judge has dealt a procedural blow to the EPA’s efforts to protect a remote part of Alaska from the impacts of what could be the largest copper and gold mine in North America. On Monday, Judge H. Russel Holland of the U.S. District Court of Alaska issued a preliminary injunction in favor the Pebble Mine’s efforts to block the EPA, thus preventing the EPA from taking further steps in its Clean Water Act (CWA) review process. Under section 404(c) of the CWA, the EPA has the authority to veto projects in the interest of protecting important rivers and wetlands. Alaska’s Bristol Bay watershed, where the mine would be located is the most productive wild sockeye salmon fishery in the world, and native tribes and environmentalists want the mine halted.
The EPA initiated the 404(c) process to stop the mine earlier this year, alleging the Pebble Mine would have significant and irreversible negative impacts on the Bristol Bay watershed. According to the EPA, it has used this authority sparingly, and typically with major projects that could have “significant impacts on some of America’s most ecologically valuable waters.”
In the intervening months, several lawsuits against the action have been filed, with this one alleging that the EPA violated the Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA) by holding secret meetings with environmental groups that wanted to stop the mine before it began permitting.
EPA spokeswoman Hanady Kader noted that the court had not ruled on the FACA allegations, saying the EPA “hopes the litigation is resolved expeditiously so the agency can move forward with its regulatory decision-making.”
In a statement, Tom Collier, CEO of the Pebble Partnership, also said that the procedural victory does not resolve the company’s claims that “EPA pursued a biased and predetermined 404c veto initiative against Pebble by not complying with the requirements of the FACA.”
He said the injunction is important because “for the first time, EPA’s march to preemptively veto Pebble has been halted.”
Pebble’s initial FOIA request, filed in January 2014, sought communications between EPA officials and the Natural Resources Defense Council, Bristol Bay Native Corporation, and Trout Unlimited, among others. In August, the EPA said it had provided all the necessary files — which included about 550 documents — however the Pebble Partnership disagreed and decided to bring the matter to court.
Tim Bristol, with the organization Trout Unlimited that is working to stop Pebble Mine and put long-term protections in place for the area, said the people who depend on the fishery for their livelihood are disappointed that they will have to wait longer to “get on with their lives and not have the specter of Pebble looming over their head.”
Earlier this month, those fighting the mine gained a significant victory when nearly two-thirds of Alaskan voters approved a ballot measure which gives Alaska’s state legislature the power to approve or reject Pebble mine. This means that not only will state and federal agencies have to approve it, but so will the state’s legislature, which would first have to conclude that the project would not harm the region’s salmon industry.
According to the group Save Bristol Bay, the proposed Pebble Mine would generate up to 10 billion tons of toxic mine waste that will have to be treated for hundreds of years. The EPA also found that a mine project like Pebble in the region could destroy up to 94 miles of streams and 5,350 acres of wetlands, lakes and ponds.