The Environmental Protection Agency told staff scientists that it was no longer opposing a controversial Alaska mining project that could devastate one of the world’s most valuable wild salmon fisheries just one day after President Trump met with Alaska’s governor, CNN has learned.
The EPA publicly announced the reversal July 30, but EPA staff sources tell CNN that they were informed of the decision a month earlier, during a hastily arranged video conference after Trump’s meeting with Gov. Mike Dunleavy. The governor, a supporter of the project, emerged from that meeting saying the president assured him that he’s “doing everything he can to work with us on our mining concerns.”
The news came as a “total shock” to some top EPA scientists who were planning to oppose the project on environmental grounds, according to sources. Those sources asked to remain anonymous for fear of retribution.
The copper-and-gold mine planned near Bristol Bay, Alaska, known as Pebble Mine, was blocked by the Obama administration’s EPA after scientists found that the mine would cause “complete loss of” the bay’s fish habitat.
EPA insiders tell CNN that the timing of the agency’s internal announcement suggests Trump was personally involved in the decision.
Dunleavy met with Trump aboard Air Force One on June 26, as the President’s plane was on the tarmac in Alaska. The President had stopped there on his way to the G20 summit in Japan.
Four EPA sources with knowledge of the decision told CNN that senior agency officials in Washington summoned scientists and other staffers to an internal videoconference on June 27, the day after the Trump-Dunleavy meeting, to inform them of the agency’s reversal. The details of that meeting are not on any official EPA calendar and have not previously been reported.
Those sources said the decision disregards the standard assessment process under the Clean Water Act, cutting scientists out of the process.
The EPA’s new position on the project is the latest development in a decade-long battle that has pitted environmentalists, Alaskan Natives and the fishing industry against pro-mining interests in Alaska.
In 2014, the project was halted because an EPA study found that it would cause “complete loss of fish habitat due to elimination, dewatering, and fragmentation of streams, wetlands, and other aquatic resources” in some areas of Bristol Bay. The agency invoked a rarely used provision of the Clean Water Act that works like a veto, effectively banning mining on the site.
Some current and former EPA officials say the decision to remove the Clean Water Act restriction ignores scientific evidence. The decision follows a series of regulatory rollbacks and political appointments within the Trump administration’s EPA that have been criticized by former EPA administrators as favoring industry interests over the environment.
The June 26 meeting between Trump and Dunleavy marked the fourth time the two had met since December.
Dunleavy has publicly supported the mining project and wrote a letter to Trump in March protesting the EPA’s prior handling of the matter. He had dinner with Tom Collier, the CEO of Pebble Limited Partnership, the project’s developer, in February and spoke to him on the phone in May, according to copies of Dunleavy’s calendar reviewed by CNN. A member of Dunleavy’s administration used to work on the Pebble project in public relations.
In response to CNN’s question about whether Dunleavy asked Trump to direct the EPA to lift the restriction during the June meeting, Dunleavy’s press secretary said the two discussed mining and a public land order, but he declined to provide specifics of the conversation.
Dunleavy said in a statement, “This project, like all projects, should be scrutinized and examined under a fair and rigorous permitting process prescribed by law. That was not the case under the EPA’s unprecedented preemptive veto.”
Neither the White House nor the EPA responded to CNN’s question on whether the White House directed the EPA to lift the restriction on the mine.
Christine Todd Whitman, who served as an Environmental Protection Agency administrator during the George W. Bush administration, said the EPA’s decision to lift the restriction on the mine before the agency’s scientists fully reviewed the matter could violate the Clean Water Act.