By Steve Quinn
JUNEAU, Alaska (Reuters) - A federal judge has rejected the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's request to dismiss a lawsuit by the Pebble Limited Partnership mining company that accuses the agency of acting improperly in trying to block a large copper and gold project.
The ruling made on Thursday by U.S. District Judge Russel Holland allowed part of the company's lawsuit to go forward alleging the EPA violated transparency requirements as it considered the proposed mine.
The ruling sets the stage for a prolonged legal battle between the EPA and Pebble, which is seeking to build a multibillion-dollar open-pit mine that would produce significant amounts of copper and gold for decades to come.
The Pebble Limited Partnership said in federal court the EPA formed three advisory committees and then failed to adhere to specific transparency requirements under the Federal Advisory Committee Act.
Pebble said the committees are part of a predetermined effort to kill one of the world's largest copper projects, located some 200 miles (320 km) southwest of Anchorage near the headwaters of the world's largest salmon fishery.
Those committees influenced the outcome of a watershed report that ultimately placed additional restrictions on the company's efforts to obtain permits, Pebble said.
"We are convinced the EPA has pursued a biased process against our project that then drove their actions toward a predetermined outcome," Pebble Chief Executive Officer Tom Collier said in a statement.
"Our fight with the EPA has been about a fair and transparent process for objectively evaluating a development plan for our project," he added, calling the ruling a "significant victory."
In an emailed statement, the EPA deferred comment to the U.S. Department of Justice, which did not provide a response.
Brian Kraft, who owns three sport-fishing lodges in Bristol Bay, said the ruling "does not in any way change the fact that a giant mine on top of Bristol Bay's salmon runs remains a horrible idea. The science has made this clear."
(Reporting by Steve Quinn in Juneau, Alaska; Editing by Eric M. Johnson and Will Dunham)