Bristol Bay groups file lawsuit challenging the Trump administration’s boost for Pebble Mine

Bristol Bay-area tribes and fisherman announced today they’re bringing a lawsuit against the Trump administration for abruptly reversing course on Obama-era restrictions on Pebble Mine, a move that gave the controversial mine a significant boost.

On the steps of the Anchorage federal courthouse, five groups told the media that they were seeking to restore the Environmental Protection Agency’s restrictions on the project that were put in place in 2014 over concerns the mine would harm the Bristol Bay’s salmon fishery.

The group’s lawsuit argues that the administration didn’t follow the process for lifting the restrictions on the mine, arguing the decision was driven by corrupt politics instead of sound science.

“A corrupt political landscape and a few backroom deals have resulted in the illegal withdrawal of peer-reviewed, science-based environmental protections for the world’s most pristine ecosystem and wild salmon habitat,” said United Tribes of Bristol Bay Deputy Director Lindsay Layland. “We are calling out the federal administration for the wrongdoing they have committed against our region.”

The decision to lift the Obama-era clean water regulations, which supporters of the mine called a “preemptive veto” of the project, was put into motion after Trump had a personal meeting with Gov. Michael J. Dunleavy earlier this year. Trump administration called together EPA officials and scientists to direct them to undo the restrictions on June 27, the day after Trump met with Dunleavy at a flight stopover in Alaska.

Dunleavy has publicly maintained a position of neutrality on the mine, but behind-the-scenes he’s been busy encouraging the mine to move forward. In a letter to a potential investor, Dunleavy encouraged the investment and pledged the state’s support to “actively help defend them from frivolous and scurrilous attacks.”

Today’s lawsuit is brought by the Bristol Bay Native Association, the Bristol Bay Economic Development Corporation, the United Tribes of Bristol Bay, the Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association and the Bristol Bay Reserve Association.

The Trump administration has been ushering the mine forward through a permitting process under the Army Corps of Engineers that even other federal agencies have called into question. Scientists at both the Department of the Interior and the EPA have filed concerns with the Army Corps’ environmental review process, arguing that the report has greatly underestimated and ignored the impact the mine could have on the fishery.

Alaska’s U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski recently oversaw the addition of language into a budget bill that rebuked the Army Corps of Engineers on the project, writing that “Adverse impacts to Alaska’s world-class salmon fishery and to the ecosystem of Bristol Bay, Alaska, are unacceptable.”

Damage to the fisheries by a project like Pebble Mine is inevitable and potentially catastrophic, argued the groups bringing the lawsuit today. They said the mine not only poses a risk to the fishery but the way of life for the people in the Bristol Bay region.

Robin Samuelsen, the chairman of the Bristol Bay Economic Development Corporation, said he’s felt betrayed by the federal government after former EPA Director Scott Pruitt visited the region and pledged to keep the restrictions in place. He said the process has effectively locked Alaska Natives out of the process.

“My people, my homeland is going to fight ’em tooth and nail, and that’s why we’re here today at the federal courthouse. We had no alternative. They said, ‘You guys keep your mouth shut, go in the corner and sit.’ They might have lucky to do that at the turn of the century, but today: Hell no, we’re not going to keep our mouth shut” he said. “We will fight these people until the end.”

The lawsuit is the latest turn in what has been a long-running legal battle over the mine and is not likely to be the last word on the project. Samuelsen said the local fight will not die.

“This mine has the potential to wipe out my Native culture that has thrived for thousands and thousands of years,” he said. “We will spend our last goddamned penny fighting this mine.”

Why it matters

The Trump administration with the backing of Dunleavy has been pushing Pebble Mine with efforts intensifying this summer with the reversal of the Obama-era restrictions on the project and the Army Corps’ environmental report.

All told, it’s created a situation where the mine is feeling increasingly inevitable despite heavy pushback from the region and grave concerns for the Bristol Bay fishery.

But this fall has brought some glimmers of hope to the process for opponents of the mine.

In late September, Murkowski helped craft a budget that is highly critical of the work done so far on the mine, saying the Army Corps’ environmental report “lacks certain critical information about the proposed project and related mitigation and therefore likely underestimates its potential risks and impacts.”

Even the more party-line U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan has voiced concerns about the Trump administration’s process behind the mine. He said at a September hearing that politics should not drive the process and “we can’t trade one resource for another.”

This lawsuit, filed by Alaska-based groups, is the latest rallying point.

The lawsuit

Here’s the court filings as were provided by the United Tribes of Bristol Bay.

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