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Pebble Mine Looking Less and Less Likely

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Earlier this week one of the key investors in the potential Pebble Mine project decided to bow out:

The global mining firm Rio Tinto announced Monday that it will divest its 19 percent stake in the controversial Pebble Mine project in Alaska,  donating its shares to two state charities.

The decision is the latest blow to the proposed gold, copper and molybdenum mine, which is under federal scrutiny for how it could affect the nearby Bristol Bay watershed, which supports nearly half the world’s sockeye salmon. In late February the Environmental Protection Agency announced it would invoke its authority under the Clean Water Act and consider blocking the mine, effectively halting the project.

Rio Tinto Copper chief executive Jean-Sebastien Jacques, whose company started reviewing its investment in the Pebble Partnership in December, said it would donate its investment in Northern Dynasty Minerals to the Alaska Community Foundation and the Bristol Bay Native Corporation Education Foundation.

Jacques said his company continues “to see Alaska as an attractive location for potential future investment,” adding that by divvying up the shares it will guarantee “that Alaskans will have a say in Pebble’s future development and that any economic benefit supports Alaska’s ability to attract investment that creates jobs.”

Recall that last September that mining giant Anglo-American pulled out of the project, and in December Rio Tinto began contemplating the decision they announced this week. Not coincidentally, they began thinking hard about giving up on Pebble about a month or two before the EPA released a report making it clear that they did not have a favorable impression of the Pebble Mine, and might consider pre-emptively vetoing the mine.

Then just over a month ago the EPA announced that it would consider blocking the mine. That they were considering this was obvious, but it did make the announcement formal and stop the Army Corp. of Engineers from considering permits for the mine:

EPA has invoked its 404(c) authority under the Clean Water Act only 13 times in its history. In starting the months-long process,  the agency is sending a letter to the Army Corps of Engineers, the state of Alaska and the mine’s sponsor to ask why they believe the operation would not damage the pristine watershed. These groups have 15 days to respond, though the agency can extend that deadline.

After that point EPA’s regional administrator in the Pacific Northwest will issue a “proposed determination” that would lay out whether the company can discharge waste into the area, and if so, where and how much. The public will have an opportunity to comment on the proposal, after which point the regional administrator will send a recommendation to EPA headquarters to be finalized.

EPA has already conducted two peer-reviewed scientific assessments of the project,  though proponents of the mine questioned whether the reviews  were adequate. Michael Conathan, who directs ocean policy at the liberal think tank Center for American Progress, said in a statement the agency’s decision “reflects the conclusions amassed over years of scientific and economic analysis.”

The thing is, the Pebble Mine project was hoping to go through the permitting process. In this process they would have had to prove to the EPA that the mine could coexist with the downstream salmon populations. If the EPA flexes its muscle and uses the 404(c) authority, then that will be the final word. It’s hard to imagine why this decision could not have been left to Alaska, rather than bureaucrats who are thousands of miles away in Washington.

 

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