JUNEAU, Alaska — In a sharp reversal, the Environmental Protection Agency has cleared a way for the company seeking to develop a massive copper and gold deposit near the headwaters of a world-class salmon fishery in southwest Alaska to pursue permits.
As part of a court settlement with the Pebble Limited Partnership, the EPA agreed to begin the process of withdrawing proposed restrictions on development in the Bristol Bay region, an area that produces about half of the world's sockeye salmon.
The agreement, released Friday, comes four months into the Trump administration, which supporters of the proposed Pebble Mine hoped would give it a fairer shake than they believed they received under President Barack Obama.
The mining industry has seen promising signs from the administration, including a willingness to take a different look at projects and to review regulations seen as overly burdensome, said Luke Popovich, a spokesman for the National Mining Association.
"I think the public is in no danger of seeing genuine environmental protection diminished," he said. "We're simply asking for a more efficient process."
Environmental groups see the Pebble agreement as potentially giving a go-ahead to industry to challenge EPA actions or to seek permits about which they previously might have been uncertain.
"It obviously sends a psychological message to big mining companies that if they were nervous about getting permits in the past ... that this is their golden opportunity to get their mine through the process," said Brett Hartl, government affairs director for the Center for Biological Diversity environmental group.
Critics of the Pebble settlement called it a backdoor deal and a slap in the face to residents of the region who petitioned the EPA in hopes of securing environmental protections.
Tom Collier, CEO of the Pebble partnership, said his company was committed to "due process."
"It's a day for Pebble Mine to really have a new start," Collier said.
Court documents showed the two sides had been exploring ways to resolve the case since August, when Obama was still in office.
Jason Metrokin, CEO of Bristol Bay Native Corporation, said in a release that the settlement "calls into question how serious the EPA is about following its mission and fulfilling the purposes of the Clean Water Act."
Representatives of tribal organizations and others in the Bristol Bay region on Thursday expressed concern that protections they had been seeking could be wiped away.
Norman Van Vactor, with the Bristol Bay Economic Development Corporation, said the next phase of challenges to the project could include additional legal fights and "standing in front of bulldozers."