EPA Chief Recused From Bristol Bay Mine That His Former Law Firm Represented

(Bloomberg) -- EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler is formally recusing himself from agency reviews and permitting decisions on a proposed gold and copper mine near Alaska’s Bristol Bay amid criticism his former law firm represented the developer.

Wheeler promised to steer clear of matters involving the controversial Pebble Mine in an updated March 20 recusal statement, two years after his former employer, Faegre Baker Daniels LLP, had arranged a meeting between former EPA chief Scott Pruitt and project developer Pebble LP.

Weeks after that 2017 meeting, Pruitt moved to withdraw proposed mining restrictions that would make it difficult, if not impossible, for the project to secure an essential Clean Water Act permit. Although Pruitt later backtracked, business groups have recently lobbied the EPA to toss out the five-year-old restrictions, arguing they preemptively block a project that would sustain jobs and extract at least 6.5 billion tons of known minerals. Environmentalists counter that the proposed mine jeopardizes a thriving salmon fishery.

Wheeler cast his decision as a “voluntary recusal” since he never provided services to a Faegre Baker Daniels client on the Pebble Mine and government advisers have said the move isn’t necessary to fulfill federal ethics rules. Wheeler said his recusal would last as long as he leads the Environmental Protection Agency. In the meantime, Wheeler has delegated Pebble issues to EPA General Counsel Matthew Leopold.

The Environmental Protection Agency could still move to lift the restrictions, without Wheeler’s involvement. And in the meantime, the Army Corps of Engineers is taking public comment on a draft environmental impact statement analyzing the mine.

Wheeler will continue to be recused from matters involving a slew of former clients until April 20, 2020, including coal miner Murray Energy Corp., uranium developer Energy Fuels Resources Inc., biofuel advocacy group Growth Energy and electric generator Xcel Energy Inc. Wheeler is also reiterating his commitment to avoid involvement in possible government interventions designed to keep power plants online by declaring a grid “emergency” under a provision of the Federal Power Act. Wheeler had made that promise as part of his earlier 2018 recusal, but the updated letter spells out the vow more explicitly.

Wheeler also said he would not participate in matters related to any Superfund sites where his former clients are potentially a responsible party. And he committed to a one-year cooling-off period from matters involving the National Energy Resources Organization, a not-for-profit group that promotes discussion of energy issues.

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