VANCOUVER (miningweekly.com) – The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has issued a pre-publication federal register notice to withdraw the July 2014 Clean Water Act (CWA) Section 404(c) proposed determination, which would have pre-emotively imposed restrictions on the discharge of dredged or fill material from the Pebble project, in Alaska’s Bristol Bay watershed.
The EPA has agreed to initiate the proposed withdrawal as part of a May 11 settlement agreement with the project’s proponent, the Pebble Limited Partnership (PLP), a fully owned subsidiary of Northern Dynasty Minerals.
Under the May settlement agreement, the Pebble project will be allowed to proceed into normal course permitting under the CWA and the National Environmental Policy Act (Nepa).
Northern Dynasty hailed the federal agency's proposal to formally withdraw its proposed determination as a further clarification of PLP's right to proceed into normal course permitting, unencumbered by any extraordinary development restrictions.
"The current administration at EPA is closely focused on enforcing environmental standards and permitting requirements for major development projects like Pebble in a way that is both rigorous and robust, but also consistent, in order to provide predictability and an even-playing field for all resource developers," said PLP CEO Tom Collier in a press release.
According to Collier, the EPA administrator Scott Pruitt – an appointee by US President Donald Trump, seen as much more pro mine development than his predecessor – has stated he does not support the unprecedented pre-emptive veto that his predecessor initiated at Pebble in July 2014. However, Pruitt also made clear his staff will follow the necessary steps to properly assess and withdraw the proposed determination – an administrative process that has now started.
Moreover, the EPA in May agreed to not file a recommended determination under CWA Section 404(c) until a final environmental impact statement for the Pebble project has been completed by the US Army Corps of Engineers – as long as that occurs within four years following the settlement, and PLP applies for permits within 30 months of the settlement date.
In return for these commitments, PLP agreed to terminate two lawsuits it brought against EPA under the Federal Advisory Committee Act and Freedom of Information Act.
The EPA has now invited the public to comment on its proposal to withdraw the pre-emptive proposed determination. The project continues to face stiff local and international opposition, however, as First Nations and nongovernmental organisations rally to defend what they term as the most valuable salmon fishery in the world, located within the pristine Bristol Bay watershed.
Northern Dynasty advised that it is now focused on qualifying and securing a new major funding partner for the Pebble project, while PLP advances plans to initiate federal and state permitting with a smaller, environmentally optimised project design.
Estimates show that the Pebble deposit is one of the largest low-grade undeveloped mine projects in the world, comprising measured and indicated resources of 5.94-billion tonnes, grading 0.78% copper equivalent and containing 55-billion pounds of copper, 67-million ounces of gold and 3.3-billion pounds of molybdenum. The deposit also has 4.84-billion tonnes of inferred resources, grading 0.53% copper equivalent and containing 26-billion pounds of copper, 40-million ounces of gold and 2.3-billion pounds of molybdenum.
Aside from the project’s environmental and permitting woes, Northern Dynasty has received several major setbacks in recent years, most notable being Rio Tinto giving away its 19.1% holding in the company to two Alaskan charities in April 2014, following a strategic review. This was short on the heels of Anglo American pulling out in September 2013, as part of its plan to cut the cost of future options.