Report: EPA efforts to block Pebble date back six years

New internal memos of the Environmental Protection Agency revealed by the Washington Times this week shows the massive Pebble copper-gold project in Bristol Bay, Alaska, may have been the target of a co-ordinated blocking effort started as long ago as 2008.

The paper reports EPA officials were not exactly acting as a neutral body and tried to kill the project long before any scientific review was conducted:

“As you know I feel that both of these projects (Chuitna and Pebble) merit consideration of a 404C veto,” EPA official Phillip North wrote in an email suggesting that the mining project’s rejection be added to the agenda of an agency retreat in summer 2009.

EPA wouldn’t even announce the beginning of a scientific review of Pebble Mine until 2011, two years after Mr. North’s email, but discussion of a pre-emptive veto dominated internal discussions inside the agency for much of the three years beforehand.

The paper also indicates that top Washington official were made aware of the process inside the agency:

A presentation prepared in 2010 for then-EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson made clear that a preemptive veto “had never been done before in the history” of the Clean Water Act and could risk litigation.

The debate over whether its actions constitute a "pre-emptive veto"considering that the company behind the project, Northern Dynasty, has yet to submit an official proposal, has been raging for years.

Last month the agency released its final assessment on how mining would impact the Bristol Bay area and concluded that the activities would put the salmon populations at risk, jeopardizing the livelihoods of tribal communities.

"The assessment indicates that the proposed Pebble Mine would likely cause irreversible destruction of streams that support salmon and other important fish species, as well as extensive areas of wetlands, ponds and lakes," the EPA wrote.

The US Geological Survey lists Northern Dynasty's deposit as the most extensive mineralized system in the world, according to the company. Drilling of 1,200 holes has determined that the deposit represents 5.94 billion tonnes of measured and indicated resources holding an estimated 55 billion pounds of copper and 67 million ounces of gold.

In total $720 million has been invested in the project, though most of that came from Anglo American – the company which dropped out of the Pebble Partnership last year. Rio Tinto (LON, ASX:RIO) last month also pulled out by giving away to local charities its 19.1%  stake in Northern Dynasty.

Northern Dynasty planned to initiate federal and state permitting in 2014, but the EPA blocked the process in February.

Under the Clean Water Act, the US Army Corps of Engineers usually issues permits to dredge or fill material into waterbodies. But under a rarely-used provision the EPA can revoke that right. During the subsequent steps which include public hearings and consultations with the Army Corps and the company, no permits can be granted.

In February Northern Dynasty brought on a new CEO, Thomas Collier. For what he lacks in mining knowledge, Collier makes up for in political connections: The new CEO is a former chief of staff at the US Department of the Interior during the Clinton era.