Days before announcing he would cave to a foreign mining company’s demands and re-open the possibility of mining copper alongside the waters where half the world’s salmon are caught, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt met in secret with the company’s CEO.
Pruitt’s sit-down with Pebble Limited Partnership CEO Tom Collier, first reported Friday by CNN, happened May 1 — while the two men were ostensibly on opposite sides of a courtroom battle over the Bristol Bay’s proposed Pebble Mine. Collier’s firm sued the EPA in 2014 after the agency determined that it would be impossible to mine copper and gold deposits near Alaska’s Bristol Bay without destroying the adjacent fish habitat. Collier and the EPA say that the May meeting was about legal issues rather than environmental ones, but less than two weeks later, Pruitt’s team settled the suit and revoked the prohibition on mining the area.
Pruitt justified the reversal by saying that it was illegal for the EPA to ban mining there before Collier’s company had applied for a permit from the agency. The company’s courtroom argument was highly technical, not asserting that EPA officials had made mistakes of fact in their three-year-long peer-reviewed study of Bristol Bay mining but rather that they’d improperly consulted with outside experts.
For a sitting EPA administrator to surrender preemptively to such an esoteric legal theory strikes is “stunning” and “very disappointing,” former EPA official Dennis McLerran told CNN. Pruitt’s predecessor as EPA administrator, Gina McCarthy, called Pruitt’s decision to meet privately with Collier “disturbing” and “extraordinary.”
Secret, cordial meetings with industry leaders are an important part of Pruitt’s management style, despite his nominal role as warden of environmental laws those businesses want to defy.
Pruitt’s decision allows Pebble Limited Partnership to officially seek permits for a mine that the EPA spent three years examining and found could not be dug without destroying the world’s salmon supply and the tens of thousands of jobs the salmon industry supports.
“We understand how much the community cares about this issue, with passionate advocates on all sides,” Pruitt said in a statement. “The agreement will not guarantee or prejudge a particular outcome, but will provide Pebble a fair process for their permit application and help steer EPA away from costly and time-consuming litigation. We are committed to listening to all voices as this process unfolds.”
Public hearings on the Pebble scheme, where a mix of local advocates for wilderness conservation and the fishing industry will be able to express their opinions, will be held October 11 and 12 in two towns near the potential site of any future mine. The EPA will close public comment entirely less than a week later, on October 17, the agency announced Thursday.
While trading the future of Bristol Bay and the world’s salmon populations for a few billion dollars of copper — which will likely cost more to rip out of the ground than it would return at market — may seem shortsighted, it is also consistent with the Trump administration’s fealty to oil, gas, and mineral industry interests.
But it also runs directly counter to the president’s proclaimed “America First” economic agenda. Collier’s company is owned by Canadian mining interests. Over more than a decade trying to develop Bristol Bay, Northern Dynasty Minerals has partnered with at least four other international mining conglomerates, including Mitsubishi, Rio Tinto, and Anglo American. All of those partner investors have eventually backed out of the project after becoming convinced it was not viable. Investment analysts from Kerrisdale Capital have determined that Northern Dynasty is effectively worthless — and have now shorted the company’s stock — because of the insurmountable environmental dangers inherent to mining low-purity ore along the earthquake-prone Ring of Fire.
Scientists, local business leaders, and native tribes took a long, hard look at whether or not Collier’s company might be able to chase its livelihood without destroying theirs. It cannot. But it turns out all it takes to bat that data aside is to slip into Pruitt’s office, ask politely, and slip back out again.