The EPA used the Clean Water Act to block Pebble’s development in February 2014, citing the potential of irreversible harm to Bristol Bay’s salmon fishery and wildlife. Courtesy of Northern Dynasty Minerals

After a decade in limbo due to legal disputes and local opposition, the controversial Pebble copper-gold project in southwestern Alaska is a couple of steps closer to being built.

After six months of mediation, Pebble Limited Partnership, a subsidiary of Vancouver-based Northern Dynasty Minerals, and the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reached a settlement agreement on May 12 over the EPA’s pre-emptive regulatory action to block Pebble from constructing its eponymous mine.

The settlement stipulates that Northern Dynasty will withdraw its lawsuits and the agency will not take action to block development of the mine until a final environmental impact study (EIS) for the project has been conducted by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

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Mediation between Pebble and the EPA began during the Obama administration but was not resolved until after President Donald Trump was sworn in. “They had a completely different outlook,” Ron Thiessen, Northern Dynasty’s president and CEO told CIM Magazine. “It was refreshing, and we knew we could get something we wanted with them.”

EPA administrator Scott Pruitt, who sued the EPA 14 times during his tenure as Oklahoma Attorney General, helped move the settlement process along, Thiessen said.

The settlement comes one month after Pebble was granted a long-awaited land-use permit from Alaska’s Department of Natural Resources, allowing it to proceed with reclamation and monitoring activities over the next 12 months. The permit came with conditions, including an unprecedented $2-million backstop for exploration clean-up.

“We’ve never said we’re not going to have a footprint, but we have to mitigate every foot that we impair,” said Thiessen.

First Nations groups are skeptical. "There is no deal Pebble could strike with the EPA that wouldn't hurt the region," Alannah Hurley, member of United Tribes of Bristol Bay, told Alaska Dispatch News.

In February 2014, the EPA blocked Pebble from moving forward with its mine under the Clean Water Act before an official proposal for the mine had been submitted, citing the potential of irreversible harm to Bristol Bay’s salmon fishery and wildlife.

Northern Dynasty filed lawsuits against the EPA later that year, claiming the agency manipulated scientific results because an EIS conducted by a third party was not used in their determination, and that some of its staff should have been considered in conflict of interest because they helped Alaskan tribes protesting the mine draft letters to the government.