Following EPA Action, Rio Tinto Exits Alaska Pebble Mine Project
Six weeks after the Obama administration said it would act to protect one of North America’s last wild salmon fisheries in Bristol Bay, Alaska, one of the world’s largest mining companies announced on Monday that it is withdrawing from the Pebble copper mine development project there. The company, Rio Tinto, also said it was gifting its shares in the project to two Alaska public interest foundations.
Rio Tinto’s decision comes after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in February decided to pursue a regulatory process under the Clean Water Act that could preemptively restrict development of the mine in order to protect streams, wetlands and lakes in the Bristol Bay watershed. The EPA process, taken under section 404(c) of the federal Clean Water Act, gives the agency the authority to veto or preemptively block the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and state agencies from issuing a permit for a development project to discharge material into waterways—a permit that would be necessary for a mine. A final veto has only been issued 13 times since 1972, when the CWA was passed.
In its February 28 statement announcing that it would initiate the 404(c) process in Bristol Bay, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy called the bay “an extraordinary and unique resource.” Though a veto has not been issued for the Pebble project, the possibility was a factor in Rio Tinto’s decision to leave the development.
“We considered the project’s fit with the group’s strategy of investing in and operating long life and expandable assets,” David Outhwaite, principal advisor for media relations at Rio Tinto, wrote to Circle of Blue in an e-mail. “We also considered the recent regulatory action that will likely prevent the Pebble project from obtaining licenses for the foreseeable future and concluded that we should exit the ownership of Northern Dynasty Minerals, and concentrate on our existing copper projects.”