The global mining firm Rio Tinto announced Monday that it will divest its 19 percent stake in the controversial Pebble Mine project in Alaska, donating its shares to two state charities.
The decision is the latest blow to the proposed gold, copper and molybdenum mine, which is under federal scrutiny for how it could affect the nearby Bristol Bay watershed, which supports nearly half the world’s sockeye salmon. In late February the Environmental Protection Agency announced it would invoke its authority under the Clean Water Act and consider blocking the mine, effectively halting the project.
Rio Tinto Copper chief executive Jean-Sebastien Jacques, whose company started reviewing its investment in the Pebble Partnership in December, said it would donate its investment in Northern Dynasty Minerals to the Alaska Community Foundation and the Bristol Bay Native Corporation Education Foundation.
Jacques said his company continues "to see Alaska as an attractive location for potential future investment," adding that by divvying up the shares it will guarantee "that Alaskans will have a say in Pebble's future development and that any economic benefit supports Alaska's ability to attract investment that creates jobs."
Jason Metrokin, chief executive of the Bristol Bay Native Corporation, is a fierce opponent of the mine who has spent more then three years urging the EPA to prohibit the project on the grounds that it could harm the environment and local fishery.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) praised Rio Tinto for its handling of the decision but suggested the Obama administration may have forced its hand.
“I understand that many mining companies are reevaluating their project portfolios right now, but I’m concerned by what else may have prompted this decision," she said in a statement. "If we want to attract investment to our state and our economy, we need a regulatory system at the federal level that is predictable enough to allow responsible development to go forward – at least to the permitting stage, and without the threat of a preemptive veto from the EPA hanging over it."
“Instead of simply divesting, it has committed to investing in the education of Bristol Bay’s next generation," she added. "This will help ensure that local residents have the skills to get or create the kind of jobs that will allow them to provide for their families."
Environmentalists, such as Earthworks' Northwest program director Bonnie Gestring, hailed the announcement as good news. "Rio Tinto's divestment from Pebble may not be the final nail in the coffin, but it's surely one of the last."