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EPA’s veto threat imperils Alaska’s Pebble Mine project

The British mining giant Rio Tinto has pulled out of Alaska’s Pebble Mine project. Republicans blame the Environmental Protection Agency for threatening to veto the mine’s water pollution permit.

“I understand that many mining companies are reevaluating their project portfolios right now, but I’m concerned by what else may have prompted this decision,” said Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski.

Rio Tinto announced on Monday it was gifting its 19.1 percent share of Northern Minerals Ltd., the company behind the mine project, to two Alaskan charitable groups in the Bristol Bay area. The company simply said that the Pebble Mine did not fit its strategy and it would be divesting itself of the project.

Rio Tinto’s withdrawal from Pebble comes after the EPA reported the project would significantly impact Bristol Bay’s salmon habitats and wetlands, which gives the agency more reason to deny the mine a Clean Water Act permit necessary for its operation.

“If we want to attract investment to our state and our economy, we need a regulatory system at the federal level that is predictable enough to allow responsible development to go forward – at least to the permitting stage, and without the threat of a preemptive veto from the EPA hanging over it,” Murkowski added.

The EPA’s final report on Pebble found that “[e]xtensive quantities of mine waste, leachates, and wastewater would have to be collected, stored, treated and managed during mining and long after mining concludes” and also that “polluted water from the mine site could enter streams through uncollected leachate or runoff, in spite of modern mining practices.”

Environmentalists cheered the study and have been pushing for the EPA to use its power under the Clean Water Act to prevent Pebble Mine from getting its permitting.

“Rio Tinto’s decision is the latest demonstration that the Pebble Mine is economically and environmentally infeasible, even for the largest mining companies in the world,” said Joel Reynolds, western director for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

“The company’s decision to divest is a vindication of its stated commitment to sustainability in the region and the health, safety, and cultural heritage of the people of Bristol Bay — and its withdrawal serves the interests of the company’s shareholders,” Reynolds added.

Rio Tinto is the second major company to pull out of the Pebble Mine project. Last year, London minerals company Anglo American pulled out of the project, despite having invested $541 million in the project. The company said it had nothing to do with the EPA’s veto threat, instead, the company was focusing on higher value investments. Republicans had a different take.

“This is a prime example of why the economy isn’t recovering. EPA and their far-left environmental allies are using unprecedented tactics to shut down potential projects and corresponding jobs before they’ve even begun the permitting process,” Louisiana Sen. David Vitter, the ranking Republican on the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, said last year.

The Pebble Mine became the focal point of a battle surrounding real extent of the EPA’s authority under the Clean Water Act. Republicans and mining supporters argued that the EPA could not veto a Section 404 water pollution permit before the mine’s builders had even sought out a permit or submitted official plans for review.

The EPA and environmentalists alleged that they could deny a Section 404 permit before any official plans had been submitted. Indeed, the EPA has based all three of its mining assessments on hypothetical mining scenarios and details from similarly situated mines already in operation.

“Apparently EPA sees no limit on its powers to interfere with another federal or state agency process for permitting projects that create high-wage jobs,” said National Mining Association President Hal Quinn. “Over the past several years, we’ve seen EPA tell other agencies to violate their rules and stop review, step in years later and revoke permits and, today, order agencies to refrain from consideration of a permit before it has been submitted.”

The EPA has not yet officially vetoed the project. Based on the agency’s final review, the mine does not have a good outlook.

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