Environmental groups, activists and Alaskans oppose the Pebble project due to its proximity to Alaska's Bristol Bay watershed, which houses the planet's greatest wild salmon fishery. Courtesy of Northern Dynasty Minerals

The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed on July 11 to withdraw Clean Water Act restrictions that prohibited Northern Dynasty Minerals from moving ahead with its controversial Pebble project in Alaska.

The restrictions currently authorize the EPA to prohibit the discharge of “dredged or fill material” in U.S. waters whenever it determines that use of such sites for disposal would have an unacceptable adverse impact on resources, including fisheries, wildlife or municipal water supplies. Based on these restrictions, the EPA blocked Northern Dynasty’s application for the mine in 2014. The company sued the agency for doing so later that year, claiming that the action was pre-emptive.

After several months of mediation and working with two administrations, the EPA and Northern Dynasty reached a settlement agreement in May. “Within certain departments of government there was a real desire to try and find a resolution under the Obama administration because I think they felt that if they just let it go, Trump would give us anything we wanted,” Ron Thiessen, president and CEO of Northern Dynasty told CIM Magazine in May after the agreement was announced.

Northern Dynasty, EPA reach settlement over Pebble project

The May settlement, reached under Trump’s EPA administrator Scott Pruitt, who sued the EPA 14 times during his tenure as Oklahoma Attorney General, stipulates that Northern Dynasty will withdraw its lawsuits and the agency will allow the company to have an environmental impact study conducted by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The EPA’s preliminary proposal explains that the withdrawal “would remove any uncertainty, real or perceived, about [Pebble Limited Partnership, the Northern Dynasty subsidiary’s] ability to submit a permit application and have that permit application reviewed.”

Northern Dynasty is already legally able to move forward with the application process due to the May settlement, regardless of if the restrictions were removed.

The project’s controversy stems from its location in the Bristol Bay watershed, which hosts the planet’s largest wild salmon fishery. Environmental groups, activists and the majority of Alaskans (more than 65 per cent of Alaskans and more than 80 per cent of Bristol Bay residents) oppose the project on the grounds that it could damage the US$1.5-billion annual sustainable commercial fishery that provides 14,000 jobs and supplies half of the world’s sockeye salmon.

Thiessen asserted the mine will not negatively impact the fishery. “I think the mine is going to have a positive effect on the salmon industry in Bristol Bay,” he said. Thiessen, who calls salmon a “pioneering fish,” said that Northern Dynasty could create new habitats for the salmon in the area as well as bring jobs and lower-cost power to the region.