JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) — In a sharp reversal, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has cleared a way for a company to seek permits to develop a massive copper and gold deposit near the headwaters of a world-class salmon fishery in southwest Alaska.
As part of a court settlement with the Pebble Limited Partnership, the EPA agreed to begin the process of withdrawing proposed restrictions on development in the Bristol Bay region, an area that produces about half of the world's sockeye salmon.
The agreement , signed Thursday but released on Friday, comes four months into the Trump administration, which supporters of the proposed Pebble Mine hoped would give it a fairer shake than they believed they received under President Barack Obama.
The mining industry has seen promising signs from the administration, including a willingness to take a different look at projects and to review regulations seen as overly burdensome, said Luke Popovich, a spokesman for the National Mining Association.
"I think the public is in no danger of seeing genuine environmental protection diminished," he said. "We're simply asking for a more efficient process."
Environmental groups see the Pebble agreement as potentially giving a go-ahead to industry to challenge EPA actions or to seek permits about which they previously might have been uncertain.
"It obviously sends a psychological message to big mining companies that if they were nervous about getting permits in the past ... that this is their golden opportunity to get their mine through the process," said Brett Hartl, government affairs director for the Center for Biological Diversity environmental group.
Critics of the Pebble settlement called it a backdoor deal and a slap in the face to residents of the region who petitioned the EPA in hopes of securing environmental protections.
Pebble sued in federal court over what it claimed was EPA's collusion with mine opponents to block the project, after an EPA study concluded large-scale mining posed significant risk to salmon in the Bristol Bay region and could adversely affect Alaska Natives in the region, whose culture is built around salmon. A review by EPA's inspector general last year found no evidence that the agency predetermined the study's outcome.
In a release, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt said 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," Pruitt said.
Tom Collier, CEO of the Pebble partnership, said this is a different EPA than his company dealt with under Obama and is committed to "due process."
"It's a day for Pebble Mine to really have a new start," Collier said.
Court documents showed the two sides had been exploring ways to resolve the case since August, when Obama was still in office.
Dennis McLerran, a regional EPA administrator under Obama who worked on the Bristol Bay issue, called Pebble's lawsuit "nuisance litigation," and said a settlement was inevitable because of the time and money involved to keep fighting in court.
But he said terms calling for EPA to initiate a process to withdraw proposed restrictions on development mark a significant departure from the prior administration. It's unclear how that process will be carried out.
The proposed mine has been hotly debated for years. Environmental activists like actor Robert Redford opposed development and multinational jewelers said they wouldn't use minerals mined from the Alaska prospect.
The EPA study provided the basis for the agency in 2014 to invoke a rarely used process under the federal Clean Water Act that supporters of the proposed mine feared could result in the project's veto before it goes through the permitting process.
While the EPA proposed restrictions on development, they were never finalized. A judge ordered the agency to stop work related to that process while the lawsuit was pending.
Collier said he hopes this year to initiate the permitting process, which can take years. He also said the company is pursuing a smaller project than most people probably think.
McLerran said he's concerned Pebble will file for a smaller-footprint mine with the intention of eventually fully developing the massive deposit. A small footprint mine would not be economically viable at that remote site, he said.
Northern Dynasty, which owns the Pebble partnership, has called the Pebble deposit "one of the greatest stores of mineral wealth ever discovered" — containing copper, gold, molybdenum and silver. Northern Dynasty has been seeking a partner since 2013, when a subsidiary of London-based Anglo American PLC announced plans to withdraw.
Jason Metrokin, CEO of Bristol Bay Native Corporation, said in a release that the settlement "calls into question how serious the EPA is about following its mission and fulfilling the purposes of the Clean Water Act."
On Thursday, representatives of tribal organizations and others in the Bristol Bay region expressed concern that protections they had been seeking could be wiped away and frustration that Pruitt had not reached out to them.
Norman Van Vactor, with the Bristol Bay Economic Development Corporation, said the next phase of challenges to the project could include additional legal fights and "standing in front of bulldozers."
Contributing to this report were Associated Press reporters Michael Biesecker in Washington, D.C., and Ellen Knickmeyer in San Francisco.