WASHINGTON, D.C. (CNN) — In a major environmental reversal, EPA scientists have been ordered to get out of the way of a massive, controversial copper and gold mine slated for a highly sensitive area in Alaska.
The order may have originated from the President himself.
The meeting took place on the tarmac during an Air Force One stopover June 26. Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy, a pro-mining, pro-business, anti-EPA governor, met with Donald Trump for nearly a half-hour.
Dunleavy has been pushing for approval of a massive gold and copper mine known as the Pebble Mine, planned for Alaska’s Bristol Bay watershed, home to the breeding grounds for one fo the world’s largest and most pristine sockeye salmon fisheries.
After his meeting on Air Force One, Dunleavy said, “He (Trump) really believes in the opportunities here in Alaska and he’s doing everything he can to help us on our mining concerns.”
Inside EPA sources now tell CNN the very next day, June 27, top EPA officials in Washington held an internal video conference with Seattle, and told staff the EPA was removing a special protection for Bristol Bay, and, in essence, clearing the way for what could be one fo the largest open-pit mines in the world.
That internal announcement was a “total shock” to top EPA scientists, sources told CNN, because their environmental concerns were overruled by Trump political appointees at EPA headquarters in Washington.
Bristol Bay and its tributaries are regarded as one of the world’s most important salmon fisheries, roughly half the world’s sockeye salmon come from there.
It’s been protected since 2014, when after three years of study, the Obama-era EPA used a rare provision of the Clean Water Act — to basically veto any mining that could pose a threat.
“EPA scientists writing a mine ‘would result in complete loss of fish habitat’ that was ‘irreversible.’ It’s mindboggling that it’s still being considered at all,” said Christine Todd Whitman, former EPA administrator.
Todd Whitman is a Republican, former New Jersey governor, and under President George W. Bush, ran the EPA. She has joined several other former EPA chiefs to publically oppose the mine.
“The potential damage is overwhelming,” she said. “The opposition to it up there is amazing and everywhere. I mean, this was a huge, the potential of over 80 miles of streams, thousands of acres, could be damaged from this project.”
This is the second time during the Trump administration the political appointees at the EPA have decided to remove special protections for Bristol Bay to pave the way for this huge mine.
In 2017, President Trump’s first EPA administrator, scandal-plagued Scott Pruitt, canceled the protections after a private meeting with the mine company’s CEO.
After a report exposed the meeting and the lack of scientific debate behind the reversal, Pruitt backed down and put the protections back in place.
Now, another private meeting, this time with the president himself, has led to yet another win for the mine, and the removal of environmental protections for this pristine watershed.
“One of the most troubling things about this administration, I mean there are a lot of things that trouble me, but on the environmental side is this disregard of science,” Todd Whitman said. “They’re gutting science across the agencies, across the departments, across the government.”
If the order is followed through with, Todd Whitman sees a number of lawsuits possibly being filed.
“Environmental groups, native Alaskans, you’ll have a host of lawsuits, I’m convinced,” she said.
Dunleavy, elected last fall, is a huge Trump supporter. He’s met the president multiple times, sending a letter to the president asking for a long list of EPA reversals, including what he called the “Clean Water 404 Veto,” a direct reference to the Pebble Mine.
A member of Dunleavy’s staff used to work on the Pebble project, in public relations.
At EPA headquarters, Andrew Wheeler, the former coal company lobbyist who now runs the agency, has a tie to Pebble Mine, too. He has recused himself from decision making on the project because his former law firm represents the mine.
EPA scientists said political and business favors are driving decision making.
One top EPA official said, “We were told to get out of the way and just make it happen.”
The EPA said the Obama-era protections were outdated and the mine still has to go through the approval process.
When asked about the internal EPA meeting on June 27, at first, the EPA denied it happened, but when presented with evidence, they admitted the meeting took place.
Sources said the meeting is when officials told scientists the decision had been made and their work was not needed.