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Federal Court Issues with EPA in World’s Largest Gold Mine

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The world’s largest gold and copper mine, slated for development in Alaska, has suffered setback after setback since it was proposed nearly a decade ago. The Environmental Protection Agency has pushed to block the project since it was first announced, and so far, they have been successful in their efforts to halt development of the mine. However, in late November, a federal judge in Alaska issued a preliminary injunction temporarily blocking the EPA from pursuing any further action.

Did the EPA Go Rogue?

Pebble Partnership, the Canadian company heading up the proposed mine near Anchorage, appealed to the courts, claiming the EPA illegally conspired with mine opponents to craft biased scientific and environmental justifications for blocking the project. Since Pebble announced their plans to mine several years ago, salmon fishermen, Native American groups, and others vocally opposed the effort, and the EPA partnered with those opponents to justify their initial actions against Pebble. Prior to last month’s ruling, it seemed as though the EPA had finally won, as financial backers like mining giants Anglo American and Rio Tinto removed their names from the project and Pebble Partnership’s momentum seemed to stall.

The injunction has injected new life into the mine, stopping the EPA from taking any further action until the court can rule on Pebble’s suit against the Agency. That suit claims that EPA officials broke the law in their efforts to cease development of the mine. The suit claims that the Agency went to local opponents of the project and used them to help cobble together a biased environmental assessment that showed the project would decimate Bristol Bay salmon and threaten to eliminate more than 15,000 fishing industry jobs. This process sidestepped regulations put forth in the Federal Advisory Committee act that were put in place to ensure that advisory committees are both objective and accessible to the public.

Pebble became interested in the EPA’s tactics when a former Agency official who had spearheaded opposition to the mine as far back as 2008 disappeared when federal lawmakers sought to question him. According to emails uncovered by those Congressmen asked to investigate, EPA officials did not oppose the gold and copper mine based upon any scientific evidence whatsoever. Instead, they formed an opinion then worked backwards to collect data that supported their position, getting involved with local tribal leaders and environmental groups to piece together evidence after the fact.

The Opportunities of the Pebble Mine Project

Those who support the mine, slated to be the largest open pit mine ever dug, say that the project could yield over 100 million ounces of gold, 80 billion pounds of copper, and a host of other precious minerals. According to a report conducted by IHS Global Insight indicates that the mine could bring in anywhere from $136 to $180 million in tax revenue for Alaska, would create more than 16,000 jobs nationwide, with 5,000 jobs slated for Alaska during construction alone. Once operational, the job opportunities in Alaska would reach 15,000 locally and another 15,000 nationwide. Those jobs would provide an average annual wage of $63,000 per year.

According to Pebble Partnership, the EPA has denied them due process stating on their website, “[The] EPA’s attempt to preemptively impose conditions on future development at Pebble, in the absence of completing an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), as is required of every major development project in the United States, is causing significant and even critical harm to our business interests and our abilities to fairly advance our project. For this reason, we fully intend to continue our litigation against EPA in order to halt the pre-emptive and unprecedented regulatory process under Section 404(c) of the Clean Water Act, and invalidate the conditions proposed by EPA Region 10.”

The Federal Court could make a ruling on this lawsuit as early as late December. All eyes in the mining community will be on this action, as it could have far-reaching implications for other large-scale mining projects in Alaska and across the country.

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