WASHINGTON (AP) — The Trump administration settled a lawsuit Friday over the proposed development of a massive gold and copper mine at the headwaters of one of Alaska's premier salmon fisheries.
The Environmental Protection Agency settled the long-running case with the Pebble Limited Partnership, agreeing to allow the Canadian-owned company to seek a federal permit to build its mine near Bristol Bay.
Pebble sued in federal court over what it claimed was EPA's collusion with mine opponents to block the project, which a study shows could pose significant risk to salmon populations. A review by EPA's inspector general found no evidence the agency acted improperly.
"We understand how much the community cares about this issue, with passionate advocates on all sides," said Scott Pruitt, the EPA administrator. "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."
According to court documents, the two sides had been exploring ways to resolve the case since August, when President Barack Obama was still in office.
The proposed mine for has been hotly debated for years. Environmental activists like actor Robert Redford opposing development and multinational jewelers saying they won't use minerals mined from the Alaska prospect.
The dispute dates to 2014, following the release an EPA study that concluded large-scale mining in the Bristol Bay watershed posed significant risk to salmon and could adversely affect Alaska Natives in the region whose culture is built around salmon. Bristol Bay, in southwest Alaska, produces about half of the world's sockeye salmon.
The study provided the basis for the EPA to invoke a rarely used process under the federal Clean Water Act that supporters of the proposed Pebble Mine feared could result in the project's veto before it goes through the permitting process.
Northern Dynasty Minerals Ltd., which owns the Pebble partnership, accused EPA of being in cahoots with mine opponents with a predetermined goal of blocking the project.
EPA, in court documents, characterized Pebble's claims as an effort to undermine its plan to protect parts of the Bristol Bay region from development.
While the EPA proposed restrictions on development, those restrictions were never finalized. A judge ordered the agency to stop work related to that process while the lawsuit was pending.
Officials for the Pebble Partnership argue EPA's actions have been overreaching and expressed hope that it will get a fairer shake with new Trump administration than it believes it got under Obama.
Northern Dynasty has called the Pebble deposit "one of the greatest stores of mineral wealth ever discovered" — containing copper, gold, molybdenum and silver. It has been looking for a partner since 2013, when a subsidiary of London-based Anglo American PLC announced it was withdrawing from the project.
On Thursday, before any settlement was announced, 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 since taking office.
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."
The inspector general for the EPA, which conducted an investigation following requests by the state, Northern Dynasty and others, last year found no evidence of bias in how the EPA conducted the study on potential mine impacts. It also concluded that the agency did not predetermine the study's outcome.