EPA Reverses Course on Proposed Alaska Gold Mine

Washington–The Environmental Protection Agency issued a statement Friday that it is pressing pause on its plan to do away with Obama-era restrictions on mining in Alaska’s Bristol Bay watershed, a move that’s being applauded by opponents of the proposed Pebble gold mine.

But, the EPA said it would still consider permit applications for mines at the site, though it noted that any permit application “must clear a high bar, because EPA believes the risk to Bristol Bay may be unacceptable.”

In his statement, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt said: “We have restored process, reviewed comments, and heard from a variety of stakeholders on whether to withdraw the proposed restrictions in the Bristol Bay watershed. Based on that review, it is my judgment at this time that any mining projects in the region likely pose a risk to the abundant natural resources that exist there. Until we know the full extent of that risk, those natural resources and world-class fisheries deserve the utmost protection. Today’s action allows EPA to get the information needed to determine what specific impacts the proposed mining project will have on those critical resources.”

The decision is a reversal of the EPA’s actions from last year, when it settled an ongoing lawsuit filed against it by Pebble Limited Partnership, the company that wants to build the gold mine, and then began the process of doing away with the restrictions placed on mining in the area under the Obama administration. 

Alaska Gov. Scott WalkerUnited Tribes of Bristol Bay and jeweler Tiffany & Co. all issued statements in support of the EPA’s decision.

Tiffany has long been an opponent of the Pebble mine, which was originally proposed as North America’s largest open-pit gold and copper mine, though plans for the mine have since been scaled back.

The jeweler was among the first major retailers to speak out against Pebble when the issue arose a decade ago.

Then under the leadership of Michael Kowalski, an avid fly-fisherman who’s visited the area, Tiffany vowed never to make jewelry out of gold sourced from the mine and held screenings of the anti-Pebble documentary “Red Gold” for its board and the media. The documentary’s title refers to the value the local population places on the millions of sockeye salmon who run the watershed every year.

A number of other jewelry retailers including Zale Corp. (then independent of Signet) followed Tiffany’s lead, signing a pledge to boycott gold from Pebble.

On Thursday, Tiffany took out a full-page ad in The Washington Post applauding the EPA’s decision.

The ad reads in part: “Tiffany & Co. has long been a vocal opponent of the proposed Pebble Mine, believing it poses a dire threat to the remarkable Bristol Bay ecosystem, and the world’s most productive salmon fishery it sustains.

“It is a belief widely shared by Alaskans, commercial and sport fishermen, Bristol Bay residents, and even many of our fellow jewelers whose livelihoods depend on mining. Our 180 years of experience sourcing precious metals and gemstones tells us there are certain places where mining should simply never occur. Alaska’s Bristol Bay is one such place.”

Pebble CEO Tom Collier said in a statement that the EPA’s recent decision “does not change our approach.”

“We filed our permit application for review by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers under the National Environmental Policy Act,” he said. “The USACE has determined we have a complete application and has initiated a thorough, objective review of the Pebble Project. We intend to participate fully in the process and encourage all project stakeholders to do the same.”

Spokesman Michael Heatwole also pointed to the portion of the statement from EPA Administrator Pruitt that reads: “This decision neither deters nor derails the application process of PLP’s proposed project. The project proponents continue to enjoy the protection of due process and the right to proceed.”

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