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Sen. David Vitter (R-LA) speaks to members of the media prior to a vote on the Senate floor June 24, 2013 on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)  Sen. David Vitter (R-LA) speaks to members of the media prior to a vote on the Senate floor June 24, 2013 on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)   

EPA could block Alaska’s Pebble Mine project

The Environmental Protection Agency may be on its way to blocking Alaska’s Pebble Mine project, a move that Republican lawmakers argue could set a dangerous precedent for future large-scale projects requiring agency approval.

EPA administrator Gina McCarthy issued a statement saying that the mine would harm salmon fisheries in Alaska’s Bristol Bay. The EPA will now make a decision on whether to block the project. The EPA’s review also prevents the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers from issuing Pebble any permits to fill in wetlands or streams until the review is completed.

Republicans contest the EPA’s authority to block the mine using the Clean Water Act (CWA). They warn if the EPA decides to veto the project, it will set a dangerous precedent.

“Talk about a disincentive to invest in America, we are seeing EPA resort to a ridiculous level of allowing political prejudices determine how the Agency handles permitting,” said Louisiana Republican Sen. David Vitter in a statement.

“When it comes to the Pebble Mine, EPA has shown that they are willing to disregard due process and lawfully established permitting procedures to ensure the failure of any project like this. EPA’s desperate attempt to kill a potential mine should signal a major red flag to businesses,” Vitter added.

The EPA argues that it has the power to veto projects under the CWA, even before they have submitted any official plans or sought out any permitting. The Pebble Mine project needed a Section 404 CWA permit to operate.

Environmentalists cheered the EPA’s decision to block the mine, which the agency said would impact one of the world’s most prolific salmon habitats.

“We’re thrilled the EPA is taking this important step to protect the world’s greatest wild salmon fishery, and the communities that depend on it,” said Jennifer Krill, executive director of Earthworks, in a statement. “The decision is clear. The science is definitive. Some places just shouldn’t be mined, and the Bristol Bay watershed is one of them.”

Republicans worry that the EPA’s decision on Pebble could expand the agency’s power to preemptively veto other large-scale projects that require CWA permitting. A Brattle Group report from 2012 found that an EPA veto of Pebble could have a “chilling effect” on $220 billion worth of projects reliant on CWA permits.

Twice now, EPA reviews of the project found that it would impact nearby wetlands, streams and salmon habitats. But the EPA has never reviewed any actual mine proposals as none have been put forward by Pebble’s operators.

“For the past three years, I have urged the agency not to prejudge this potential project before its developers sought permits or presented an official description of it,” said Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski om a statement.

“If EPA’s action today in effect prejudges this project, the process EPA has outlined could establish a terrible precedent that only further detracts from investors’ willingness to bring capital and jobs to Alaska,” Murkowski added. “It will also open the door to preemptive vetoes on this and other projects, putting development on all of our state’s lands – and both public and private lands across the nation – at risk. EPA asserts that this situation is ‘unique.’

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