The EPA on Friday night reversed a prior decision it made and halted the approval process of a gold mine in Alaska’s Bristol Bay.
EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt said the Pebble Mine project would harm the area's natural resources.
"It is my judgment at this time that any mining projects in the region likely pose a risk to the abundant natural resources that exist there,” Pruitt said.
The decision does not cancel the mine outright, but leaves in place the Obama administration's block of the project until the EPA solicits further comments.
Pruitt said he made the decision after consulting with various stakeholders, including Alaska natives and tribal governments.
“We have restored process, reviewed comments, and heard from a variety of stakeholders on whether to withdraw the proposed restrictions in the Bristol Bay watershed,” Pruitt said. “Until we know the full extent of that risk, those natural resources and world-class fisheries deserve the utmost protection.”
The Obama administration had denied the mine a permit for years because of the potential impact it would have on water quality and the number of salmon that indigenous populations rely upon.
That decision led to a lawsuit in 2014 brought by the Canadian company developing the mine.
Last year, Pruitt began the process of withdrawing the Obama administration’s move to block the mine, allowing the company to apply for a Clean Water Act permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
At the time, Pruitt said his decision did not "guarantee or prejudge a particular outcome," but provided the Pebble Mine developers "a fair process for their permit application and help steer EPA away from costly and time-consuming litigation."
The developers of the proposed mine are a collective known as the the Pebble Limited Partnership, comprised of Canadian miners Northern Dynasty Minerals and First Quantum Minerals.
Northern Dynasty on Friday vowed to continue with the permit process, despite Pruitt’s latest action.
"The settlement agreement that the Pebble Partnership entered into with the EPA last year provides Pebble an unfettered opportunity to proceed through normal course permitting under the Clean Water Act and National Environmental Policy Act," said Northern Dynasty president and CEO Ron Thiessen. "We have every confidence that Pebble's ultimate project design will meet the rigorous environmental standards enforced in Alaska and the US.”
Pruitt on Friday said the mine still could ultimately be approved and the EPA will soon open a formal public comment process to get input on the agency’s next steps.
“This decision neither deters nor derails the application process of Pebble Limited Partnership’s proposed project,” he said. “The project proponents continue to enjoy the protection of due process and the right to proceed. However, their permit application must clear a high bar, because EPA believes the risk to Bristol Bay may be unacceptable.”