Both those for and against development of a mine near Bristol Bay are reacting to a Tuesday announcement from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which stated it would withdraw proposed Clean Water Act protections for Bristol Bay.

In a release, the EPA stated the proposed restrictions were outdated and issued preemptively. The agency will now focus on the permitting process.

The agency  announced its plans in June to reconsider the 2014 decision that essentially put the brakes on the project. Two years ago, the EPA agreed to begin the process that would remove Obama-era restrictions, but last year decided to further research the impacts on the fisheries.

Pebble Partnership's CEO Tom Collier on Tuesday called the decision a win for reasonable development across the country.

"It's the old saying better late than never. We're really pleased that [restrictions] have been limited, but it should have been done a long time ago," said Collier.

He said if realized the project will be an economic boon to the region, offering jobs for some of the poorest and least employed communities in the state.

Groups that oppose the mine have long said the project threatens the habitat of salmon in Southwest Alaska's Bristol Bay. However, Collier said they believe a draft environmental impact statement from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers negates that claim.

"The [Army] Corps of Engineers concluded unequivocally and repeatably that our project will not do any damage to the Bristol Bay fishery — period," he said.

Critics of the mine see the decision as a step backward. In a combined statement, leaders from the Bristol Bay region lambasted the EPA.

"The fact that the EPA would withdraw protections for Bristol Bay after the very same agency stated that the proposed Pebble mine could devastate our region makes no sense," said Bristol Bay Native Association CEO Ralph Andersen in the prepared statement. "This is unacceptable, and a clear example of politics taking priority over science at the federal level. The people of Bristol Bay deserve more from the federal government."

Bristol Bay Economic Development Corp. CEO Norm Van Vactor cited 2019's abundant salmon runs and the need to protect them for future generations.

"It is time for our elected leaders to hold federal agencies accountable for the work they are doing and put people, science and the environment that our children will inherit, ahead of politics," Van Vactor said.

According to an Army Corps of Engineers website for the project, a final environmental impact statement will address "substantive comments" gathered on the draft. The final report is expected in early 2020, with a decision on the application later that year.

Cassie Schirm contributed to this report.

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