Tribes, environmental groups sue to stop mine in Alaskan salmon spawning areas

Five native, business and environmental organizations sued the Environmental Protection Agency on Tuesday over a proposed controversial Alaska gold and copper mine that the Trump administration has backed after it reversed an Obama-era decision that stopped the project due to environmental concerns.

(CNN) -- Five native, business and environmental organizations sued the Environmental Protection Agency on Tuesday over a proposed controversial Alaska gold and copper mine that the Trump administration has backed after it reversed an Obama-era decision that stopped the project due to environmental concerns.

On Tuesday the five groups, representing 31 tribes and tribal governments as well as a seafood development association and hundreds of commercial fishing interests, all sued the EPA in federal court in Anchorage, Alaska, over the administration's lifting of the Obama EPA 2014 Clean Water Act protections. The Trump administration in late July lifted the Obama EPA's roadblock on the massive proposed Pebble mine, allowing the project to largely move forward towards the permitting process.

On Wednesday a similar lawsuit was filed against the EPA by more than a dozen other environmental groups, including the Natural Resources Defense Council, Defenders of Wildlife, the National Parks Conservation Association and SalmonState. Like the lawsuit filed Tuesday, these environmental groups Wednesday allege the EPA broke the law when it recently withdrew the Obama-era protections that had stopped the mine.

The area the mine is proposed for in Bristol Bay is a sensitive and pristine watershed that is home to one of the world's last and largest wild salmon spawning areas, nurturing a vast quantity of salmon fished and consumed in the world, and sustaining millions of fishermen and native populations across the northwest.

The Obama EPA spent years studying the proposed mining project, then took the unusual decision to essentially stop the project before it could apply for a permit. The EPA in a 2014 report wrote that the mine's discharge dredge into the area's streams, and watershed "would result in complete loss of fish habitat." The report added that the mine waste "would significantly impair the fish habitat functions of other streams, wetlands, and aquatic resources. All of these losses would be irreversible."

The groups on Tuesday stated they filed the lawsuit "against the Trump Administration's effort to remove Clean Water Act science-based protections set in place to preserve the integrity of our salmon bearing streams. By removing those protections, the administration not only broke the law, it made clear that local people will have no voice in the management of our rivers, streams, and wetlands."

The Trump EPA dropped the Clean Water Act protections shortly after President Donald Trump met with Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy.

Previously the Trump EPA in 2017 had tried to push the project forward right after scandal-plagued EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt met with the mining CEO, but that decision was later reversed and then Pruitt was fired.

The Bristol Bay Native Association, the United Tribes of Bristol Bay, the Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Corporation, the Bristol Bay Economic Development Corporation, and the Bristol Bay Reserve Association announced their lawsuit Tuesday morning in Anchorage, saying the suit is "on behalf of the residents and fishermen who rely on the Bristol Bay fishery and all it sustains."

On Wednesday the environmental groups filing the second lawsuit continued the criticisms of the EPA and the process it had taken to recently end the Obama-era protections that had stopped the mine in 2014.

"EPA's decision to abandon protections for Bristol Bay is driven by politics, not science, and Alaska's wild salmon fishery and the people and communities who depend on it are the victims," said Joel Reynolds, the Western director at the Natural Resources Defense Council. "The Trump administration's backing of a foreign mining company over the people of Alaska in disregard of science-based safeguards is arbitrary, capricious and illegal."

Tim Bristol, executive director of SalmonState, said, "With its mine proposal, Pebble Limited Partnership perpetuates a myth that building a colossal open-pit mine will not have negative impacts on the world's greatest wild salmon fishery. History and the science say otherwise. Unfortunately, backroom deals and cronyism between political appointees and mining lobbyists have left us with no choice but to petition the courts for relief."

An EPA spokesman said the agency does not comment on pending litigation.

This story has been updated with additional developments Wednesday.

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