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Group suing EPA over process that could restrict, bar development of Pebble Mine in Alaska

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JUNEAU, Alaska - A group seeking to develop a massive gold-and-copper prospect near the headwaters of a world-premier salmon fishery in Alaska is suing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for taking steps that could result in development being restricted or prohibited.

The Pebble Limited Partnership alleges in its lawsuit that the EPA exceeded its authority when it initiated the rarely used process under the Clean Water Act after concluding that large-scale mining in the Bristol Bay watershed posed significant risks to salmon. Pebble fears the agency will kill the project before mine plans are finalized or it's evaluated through the permitting process.

EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said in February that the agency started the process because the Bristol Bay fishery "is an extraordinary resource and is worthy of out-of-the-ordinary agency actions to protect it." She also stressed that no final decision had been made.

The Pebble Partnership asserts that a veto of the project would be an "unlawful revocation" of Alaska's right to allow development on state lands. The proposed mine is on state lands.

The EPA has "repeatedly ignored" comments from Pebble, the state and others "about this massive federal overreach," Pebble Partnership CEO Tom Collier said in a statement. If the EPA ultimately vetoes the project before a development plan is submitted or evaluated through the permitting process, "the precedent established will have significant long-term effects on business investment in this state and throughout the country," he said.

Collier said the group sued to get the agency's attention and "bring some rational perspective back to the U.S. permitting process."

The EPA has maintained that any action taken would be based "on the science and the law," agency spokeswoman Hanady Kader said in a statement Thursday. The EPA's authority under the Clean Water Act to prohibit or restrict the use of certain sites for disposal of mining-related discharges is clear and has been used successfully, though rarely, in the past, she said.

Kader said the EPA continues to review the science and comments from Pebble Partnership and Alaska before deciding whether to move on to the next step of the process, in which the agency could publish proposed mining restrictions or prohibitions and gather public comment.

The process is in the initial phase, which called for the state, those behind the mine project and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to submit information showing that mining-related discharges would have no "unacceptable adverse effects" to aquatic resources or the effects could be prevented. The state and Pebble are pushing back against the process as premature.

The lawsuit, which a Pebble spokesman said was filed Wednesday, is the latest in a long-running fight over the proposed project.

The inspector general for the EPA recently said it planned to review whether the agency followed laws, regulations and policies in developing its report on the impacts of large-scale mining in the Bristol Bay region following congressional requests and complaints to its hotline.

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