The Trump administration has given new life to a proposed gold and copper mine in Alaska that would be built at the headwaters of one of the world's largest runs of wild salmon.
The Environmental Protection Agency reached a legal settlement late Thursday with the Canadian company that wants to build Pebble Mine, a vast project that would extract as much as $300 billion in precious metals while building roads, waste ponds and other infrastructure in the remote region surrounding Alaska's Bristol Bay.
The bay is home to a pristine ecosystem that includes the spawning grounds for the nation's most important salmon fishery, including the world's largest run of wild sockeye. The fishery is worth hundreds of millions of dollars annually.
It is far from guaranteed that the mine will be built. Lawsuits, financial challenges and political opposition are inevitable, but the settlement does allow the company to formally apply for necessary federal permits.
Even in a state in constant tension over resource development — from offshore drilling in the Arctic to logging in the Tongass National Forest — few projects have been more controversial or revealing about Alaska than the Pebble Mine, which has been fought over for more than a decade. It pits two prized state resources against each other: gold and fish
The company, Pebble Limited Partnership, which is owned by Northern Dynasty Minerals Inc. of Canada, had sued the EPA in 2014 after the agency determined that the Bristol Bay watershed was too fragile and unique to allow large-scale mining.
EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, who has helped lead a widespread effort by the Trump administration to roll back regulations put in place under President Obama, emphasized that point on Friday.
"We understand how much the community cares about this issue, with passionate advocates on all sides," he said. "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. We are committed to listening to all voices as this process unfolds."
Fishermen, some native groups, environmentalists and some local businesses have long opposed the mine, while miners, some native corporations and many of the state's conservative politicians have supported it.
"Instead of making America great, it risks America's greatest wild salmon runs," Taryn Kiekow Heimer, a senior policy analyst for the Natural Resources Defense Council, wrote of the settlement in a blog post on Friday. "And instead of protecting the commercial fishermen, sportsmen and Alaska Natives who voted for Trump, it prioritizes a foreign mining company."
In 2008, state voters rejected a measure that would have effectively banned large-scale mining in the Bristol Bay region. Last fall, however, 66% of voters approved a measure that gives the state Legislature the power to ban mining in the watershed if it believes it could endanger wild salmon.
In 2014, the Pebble Partnership claimed in federal court that the EPA had colluded with opponents of the mine to effectively block the project after the EPA issued a finding under the Clean Water Act, that determined that large-scale mining in the region posed too significant a risk to salmon. The EPA did not admit fault in the settlement reached Thursday and the scientific work it has done was not invalidated.
Under the settlement, the Pebble Partnership, which has never applied for federal permits to build the mine, will be required to submit its application within 30 months. The EPA will not make a final determination on the project until the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers completes an environmental impact study, as long as the Corps completes that work within 48 months.
Ron Thiessen, the president and chief executive of Northern Dynasty Minerals, which is seeking a financial partner to proceed, heaped praised on Trump, Pruitt and conservative members of Congress who had pressed the EPA to settle the case.
"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," Thiessen said in a statement. "Today's settlement gives us precisely that, the same treatment every developer and investor in a stable, first-world country should expect."
1:45 p.m.: This article was updated with staff reporting, with additional background information and comments from Taryn Kiekow Heimer and Ron Thiessen.