In a move that returns the rule of law to the administrative regulatory process, the Environmental Protection Agency has invalidated an Obama-era attempt to circumvent longstanding legal precedent in its zeal to torpedo a proposed mining project in Alaska.

Debate and litigation surrounding the proposed Pebble Mine in southeastern Alaska near Bristol Bay has been going on for well over a decade. The site that would be mined is said to be rich in gold and rare earths. Rare earths are minerals with unique properties that are essential components in used in high-tech gadgetry for both industrial and military purposes. China is far and away the world’s leader in rare earths, accounting for over 90% of global production, and the proposed Pebble Mine would be one way for the U.S. to close the gap.

The mine would also be located near valuable salmon fisheries, and the project’s opponents – primarily environmentalists, local tribes, and Obama administration officials — cited the potential threat to wildlife as a reason to reject the project.

Obama Administration’s Extra-Legal “Determination”

Despite this opposition, the mine’s developers sought permits from both the state and the federal government, a process they knew would take years. In 2014, Obama political appointees at EPA short-circuited the permitting process by issuing a “determination,” based largely on unproven and unrealistic assumption, that the proposed mine would do irreparable environmental harm. That unprecedented move, a de facto veto, put the project on ice.

On July 30, the Trump EPA officially withdrew the Obama-era determination, which official said was “issued prematurely and is now outdated,” returning the decision on the future of the mine to the traditional permitting process.

“After today’s action, EPA will focus on the permit review process for the Pebble Mine project,” EPA Region 10 Administrator Chris Hladick said in a statement. Working with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which shares regulatory jurisdiction with the agency on matters relating to bodies of water, EPA officials said they have expanded the public record on the mine. That record now contains information that was not available in 2014, they emphasized.

Rule of Law

Trump officials didn’t hesitate to take a swipe at the previous administration for they way in which handled the project.

“Today’s decision is a step towards good government decision making, which we owe under the law to both the public and project proponents,” EPA General Counsel Mathew Leopold said in a statement.

EPA’s action does not mean the mine will be approved. The matter will be tied up in litigation and bureaucracy for several more years. But it does signify that the decision-making process is back where it belongs, after it was hijacked by Obama political appointees intent on the deindustrilization of the United States.

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