Update: EPA, Pebble reach settlement to allow "normal permitting"

May 11, 2017

Settlement announced Friday morning. Anticipating the news, Pebble opponents took to the streets Thursday in Dillingham with a loud message of "Fish First, Pebble Never."

UTBB director Alannah Hurley chaired a press conference Thursday at BBEDC. She was joined by Joe Chythlook, Russel Nelson, Ralph Andersen (pictured), plus Robin Samuelsen, Sharon Clark, Norm Van Vactor, Bryce Edgmon, and William Evanoff.
Credit KDLG

Update, Friday 7:00 a.m.:  The Environmental Protection Agency and the Pebble Limited Partnership announced they have reached a settlement that will allow the Pebble project to proceed into a normal permitting process.

“From the outset of this unfortunate saga, we’ve asked for nothing more than fairness and due process under the law – the right to propose a development plan for Pebble and have it assessed against the robust environmental regulations and rigorous permitting requirements enforced in Alaska and the United States,” said Ron Thiessen, President & CEO. “Today’s settlement gives us precisely that, the same treatment every developer and investor in a stable, first world country should expect.”

The terms of the agreement were issued Friday morning. EPA says it will back away from the preemptive Clean Water Act restrictions it proposed in 2014 under the Obama administration. In return, Pebble has agreed to initiate a permit process within the next 30 months, and to complete a full Environmental Impact Statement within four years.

Pebble CEO Tom Collier said Friday's announcement accomplished one of his two main objectives, leaving finding a new partner for the project as the next priority. He said a "busy and exciting" year was ahead.

“We are excited to be able to introduce several new initiatives in the coming year that will more clearly
define how the project will benefit residents of Bristol Bay and Alaska. Our project will be significantly
smaller with demonstrable environmental protections. Chief among these is protecting the important
salmon resource in Bristol Bay," Collier said.

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt said in a written statement the settlement provides a fair process for Pebble but does not guarantee the outcome.

Pruitt also said the EPA understands “how much the community cares about this issue.”

The pushback Friday morning was swift.

“Endangering America’s greatest salmon fishery to enrich a mining conglomerate shows Pruitt’s complete contempt for the EPA’s mission," said Brett Hartl, the government affairs director at the Center for Biological Diversity. "This massive mine will be a catastrophe for the people and environment of Bristol Bay and the whole state of Alaska.”

Reach the author at dave@kdlg.org or 907.842.5281.

Thursday's story on the pushback from local leaders and residents continues below.

The EPA and the Pebble Limited Partnership say they are close to a deal to settle a lawsuit, a settlement that has Pebble’s opponents nervous. They anticipate EPA backing away from the preemptive restrictions proposed under the Obama administration which would block the controversial mine's development. In Dillingham Thursday, Pebble opponents took the streets and put a united leadership front up to push back.

Audio Transcript: "We’re here today because we are expecting an unfortunate outcome between the Pebble Partnerhsip and the Environmental Protection Agency, the EPA," Lindsay Layland called out over a megaphone Thursday.

UTBB's Lindsay Layland addresses a crowd at an "Protect Bristol Bay" rally Thursday in downtown Dillingham.
Credit KDLG

Layland, who works with the United Tribes of Bristol Bay, was speaking to a crowd of several dozen in downtown Dillingham Thursday. It has been a while since the community turned out for a good old-fashioned sign-waving anti-Pebble rally, and most of those in the past were very pro-EPA. This one was not:

"As many of you know, with a new administration in the White House, we have a pro-development, kind of anti-environment situation going on," she said. "So we’re working really hard to continue this fight, but we know that there’s a lot of struggles at the federal level that we have to work against."

Under Obama, the EPA completed a extensive study of the Bristol Bay watershed in an attempt to predict the effects of large scale copper and gold mining on the ecosystem. The three year effort was published in 2014, and not without its critics.

"I think the Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment was a document that’s not worth the paper that it’s printed on. It’s scientific value is zero," said Tom Collier, the CEO of Pebble Mine.

Collier has guided the company’s efforts to beat back the preemptive regulations, filing lawsuits, testifying before Congress, and now working with a new EPA to resolve the matter. Speaking last week, Collier said he was optimistic that resolving one of those lawsuits outside of court will put Pebble and EPA back into a normal relationship.

"All the resolution allows us to do is go into permitting," he said. "We’ll prepare a permit application and file it, and everyone will have an opportunity to look at the project we’re proposing. Which, by the way, I think will be dramatically different from what most people think we have been talking about proposing in the past."

If the proposed Clean Water Act 404c restrictions had been finalized, Pebble would probably not have been able to dig a mine in the headwaters of Bristol Bay. Most of Pebble’s opponents backed EPA’s unique effort full-throatedly, submitting millions of public comments and heaping praise during two visits by EPA administrators and one by President Obama himself. But the lawsuit blocked the agency from further work until the case was resolved. All that work may now be for naught.

William Peterson from New Stuyahok was on hand for the Dillingham rally Thursday.

"What’s the message to Governor Walker, President Trump, and EPA?" KDLG asked William Peterson from New Stuyahok at Thursday's rally.

"To help protect the salmon in Bristol Bay, and all the tributaries in Alaska that have salmon," he said, saying the salmon "were here before any economic development, and the ancestors were here before any fishers. We've been fighting this for generations."

The support for EPA seen on Pebble opponents' signs in years passed was gone Thursday, as they accuse Pebble and Trump's EPA of coming to a "backroom deal" to advance the project.
Credit KDLG

There was no decision Thursday afternoon, but the anticipation was that the news would not be welcome.

"It is a day of disappointment, but you know what, we’re going to stand united," said Gayla Hoseth of Dillingham. "People are going to try to divide us and conquer us, but we’re going to stand united and stay firm, and get out there and rally."

The United Tribes of Bristol Bay hosted a press conference after the rally, inviting leadership from the Bristol Bay Native Corporation, the Bristol Bay Native Association, the Bristol Bay Economic Development Corporation (known locally as "the BB’s") and others.

"We’re here today to express our great sense of betrayal and outrage," said UTBB executive director Alannah Hurley. "It appears the Pebble Limited Partnership and EPA are set to announce a settlement concerning the proposed Clean Water Act protections our people have fought so hard for."

Norm Van Vactor heads BBEDC, the local CDQ organization. He said regional leadership will continue their fight against Pebble, using any means necessary.

"I’m sure there’s going to be legal challenges, taking to the streets, standing in front of bulldozers … our response is going to be multi-faceted," he said.

Russell Nelson, a BBNC board member, cautioned against buying into the idea that a smaller Pebble Mine proposal will be any safer than the larger one stakeholders have long expected.

"As long as that resource is in there, they can tell you what they want, you just need to look at their website, they’re going to mine it to the end, till they extract the last dollar out of that resource," Nelson said. "Then it’ll go bankrupt. And then the rest of the us will probably go bankrupt, when the sulfides come downhill and ruin the Bristol Bay fisheries."

Verner Wilson III speaking Thursday.
Credit KDLG

Others, including Alaska House Speaker Bryce Edgmon, spoke about the divisions that are creeping back into Bristol Bay, from village councils and corporations at odds to the friends and family members who find themselves on different sides of the controversial issue. For Pebble supporters, this changing tide is opening up the possibility of jobs and economic development. Still, BBNC’s Joe Chythlook was unequivocal on the position the board he chairs is keeping.

"This is no place, I repeat, this is no place, for a mine that risks all that we have. I am proud today to express to you all: salmon first, Pebble never," he said.

Nobody has said that Pebble can build their mine yet. The settlement may allow them to go into permitting, where an actual mine plan would be vetted under the National Environmental Policy Act, using a full Environmental Impact Statement. If this happens, the fight could go on for several more years before a permitting decision is issued.

Opponents like Verner Wilson III hoped this now decade-long fight would have been put to rest during the Obama years.

"I think that our ancestors will be proud of what we’ve done up until now," he said. "And for us to just stand back, that’s just not who we are."

Wilson was speaking at the rally, where protestors waved signs and introduced a new slogan they hoped reaches the ears of Trump’s EPA back in Washington:

“Fish first, Pebble never ... fish first, Pebble never ... fish first, Pebble never....”

Reach the author at dave@kdlg.org or 907.842.5281.