Trump’s EPA stabs Alaskans in the back with mining reversal

Bad news for lovers of salmon, planet Earth.

Salmon fishery workers in Bristol Bay, Alaska, in 1997. CREDIT: AP Photo/Jack Smith, File
Salmon fishery workers in Bristol Bay, Alaska, in 1997. CREDIT: AP Photo/Jack Smith, File

Plans to mine alongside Alaska’s pristine Bristol Bay, where half the world’s salmon are fished, had appeared dead in the water in recent years.

Not anymore. The Environmental Protection Agency has dropped a regulatory plan that would have protected Bristol Bay from the planned Pebble Mine, encouraging the project’s backers to seek permits and move forward.

Northern Dynasty, the mining concern behind the Pebble project, has had a rough few years. In 2014, the Obama EPA moved to block its plans to mine for copper and gold under the Clean Water Act, prompting the company to launch a costly court battle. Then a New York investments house announced it believes the company’s stock is effectively worth $0.00 — because even if Pebble gets approved it will be economically impossible to extract the minerals there in a profitable fashion.

Optimists, meanwhile, began pushing Northern Dynasty stock as a get-rich-quick opportunity following President Donald Trump’s election victory, in anticipation of a reversal in federal policy toward Pebble. On Friday, that prediction was proven at least partly correct: EPA head Scott Pruitt announced the agency would settle Northern Dynasty’s lawsuit, abandon Obama-era regulatory plans, and allow the company to apply for a mining permit.

The contrasting views from analysts look a lot like a pump-and-dump stock scheme, in which luring investors to Northern Dynasty on the promise of a Trump administration policy reversal proves profitable, even for those who agree with the cynical analysis of the mine’s future.

One of the most outspoken proponents of the mine has been Porter Stansberry, an analyst who appears regularly on right-wing media and has called Northern Dynasty stock “Trump’s Gold.” Stansberry is a notorious huckster who has been fined millions of dollars over his faulty advice in the past.

If Northern Dynasty ever breaks ground, it will almost certainly portend an irreversible catastrophe both for the local Alaskan ecology and for everyone who enjoys eating salmon. Roughly half the salmon sold worldwide are fished in the Bristol Bay area.

Pebble Mine’s plans include gigantic ponds of toxic mining waste, held back from the sea only by earthen dams. The Alaskan site also sits on the so-called “Ring of Fire,” the geological region where violent earthquakes are most common. Seepage, spillage, and contamination are a virtual certainty should Pebble ever break ground.

Sportsmen and outdoor industry groups blasted the EPA’s decision on Friday, calling it a hypocritical reversal of Trump’s campaign promises to support people whose livelihood or recreation depend on places like Bristol Bay.

“This is a direct assault on our values.”

“This was a real test for President Trump, who said all the right things to sportsmen during the election,” Sportsman’s Alliance for Alaska director Scott Hed said. “Rolling back protections for Bristol Bay flies in the face of catch and release anglers, fly-rod makers, big-game hunters, and firearms manufacturers — the entire sporting spectrum. This is a direct assault on our values.”

While the mining company says it intends to produce a smaller, more cautious plan than the one it has failed to seek permit approval for over the past 15 years, Nelli Williams of Trout Unlimited noted there is no such thing as a safe version of Pebble Mine.

“The deposit is at the headwaters of Bristol Bay’s two most important rivers. We know it’s made up of material that’s highly likely to produce pollution, and pollution runs downhill. No planning is gonna change any of that,” Williams said.

Besides, she added, the fundamental reality is that Bristol Bay is worth more to Alaskans if it is protected — and not just because it’s pretty.

“ The science is super clear that Pebble would put jobs in the local economy and the amazing sportfishing industry and the culture all at huge risk,” she said. “The EPA is risking all of that for a foreign mining company that’s never developed a mine before.”

“The EPA is risking [the local economy] for a foreign mining company that’s never developed a mine before.”

Northern Dynasty still may never move ahead. The copper and gold deposits along Bristol Bay are enormous but not concentrated. The company would have to chop through 99 pounds of rock for every single pound of valuable minerals — a brutal hill to climb in return-on-investment terms. The mine’s practical outlook, aside from the environmental concerns, is dark enough that numerous large mining companies have walked away from partnerships that have sought to carve up Bristol Bay for decades.

These immense practical challenges coupled with the threat the plan poses to the Alaskan economy and the global fish trade were enough to convince the EPA to preempt Pebble through regulation in 2014. Northern Dynasty sued almost immediately.

New EPA administrator, the climate change denialist and extraction industry pal Scott Pruitt, abruptly settled that lawsuit in the company’s favor on Friday.

Under Pruitt’s deal, Northern Dynasty has two and a half years to apply for a permit to mine the site — and the EPA cannot follow up on the Obama team’s determination on environmental impacts for a full four years “or until the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers issues its final environmental impact statement, whichever comes first.”

Since taking office, Pruitt has repeatedly signaled that he intends to support industry requests to develop fossil fuels and other mineral extraction activities. One of his first actions as EPA administrator was to delay an initiative intended to ensure that mining companies have the financial backing to clean up environmental damages. The mining industry had opposed the rule.

Pruitt also specifically said that the EPA withdrew a request for information on methane leaks from oil and gas operations after receiving a request from the industry to do so. He has since revoked or delayed several rules after consulting with industry.