Judge allows Pebble case against EPA to continue

Pebble Limited Partnership’s lawsuit against the Environmental Protection Agency will continue as a federal judge Thursday morning denied the agency’s motion to dismiss.

U.S. Alaska District Court Judge H. Russel Holland concluded that while the EPA may not have established the three “anti-mine” groups as described by Pebble in its complaint — the Anti-Mine Coalition, Scientists and Assessment Team — agency staff could have utilized them to draft the pending determination to block development of Pebble’s copper and gold claims near Bristol Bay.

The mining organization’s attorneys argued during a May 28 hearing that the agency was in cahoots with area tribes and mine opposition groups for years prior to and during the Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment process.

The exhaustive assessment, which found large-scale mining would irreparably harm the region’s robust salmon fisheries, is the basis for the EPA’s attempt to preemptively stop Pebble through its Clean Water Act Section 404(c) wetlands protection authority.

Pebble’s primary argument centers on the claim that the EPA violated the Federal Advisory Committee Act, or FACA, which requires agencies to remain objective and follow strict public notice and open meetings guidelines on policy issues when taking input from interest groups.

The agency claims that even if it unknowingly violated FACA, Pebble had ample opportunity to provide input during more than 30 meetings with EPA officials since 2003 — long before the assessment process officially began in 2011.

In November, Holland issued an injunction to prevent the EPA from finalizing the 404(c) process until the court case is resolved.

He dismissed with prejudice Pebble’s allegations that the EPA established the Anti-Mine Coalition and Anti-Mine Scientists groups in the latest order. Holland also dismissed with prejudice Pebble’s claim for injunctive relief.

The EPA was also relieved from answering chunks of the amended Pebble complaint, which it claimed violated court procedure.

“(Pebble’s) first amended complaint is lengthy and does contain irrelevant and redundant allegations and unnecessary factual details,” Holland wrote. “But rather than dismissing the first amended complaint, the court will excuse the defendants from answering” the sections that do not pertain to the FACA accusations.

Holland called Pebble’s original, 138-page complaint, an “outrageous violation” of court procedural guidelines when issuing the November injunction.

Also on May 28, the federal a three-judge panel from the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed a previous lawsuit by Pebble — also heard and dismissed by Holland last September — that the EPA overstepped its authority by beginning the 404(c) process before a mine plan or permit applications were submitted. It was determined that case was not ripe for a ruling until the mine veto was finalized.

Elwood Brehmer can be reached at elwood.brehmer@alaskajournal.com.

Updated: 
11/21/2016 - 7:53pm