• State vows it will fight in court
By Carey Restino
An extraordinary resource requires extraordinary action.
That was the message presented last Friday as the head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Gina McCarthy announced it would be taking action critics have called a federal overreach regarding the proposed Pebble Mine.
The EPA announced it was taking regulatory action to protect the Bristol Bay watershed using the Clean Water Act to further examine the “potentially destructive impacts of the proposed Pebble Mine.” While the action was welcome news to opponents of the controversial mine, who have long pushed for the EPA to take this step, others, including the state of Alaska, were critical, in part because the EPA made the move on the project prior to any plans being filed.
Lisa Reimers, CEO of the Iliamna Development Corporation, a subsidiary Iliamna Natives Limited, said many in Iliamna fear the EPA’s action will shut down all development of the 77,000 acres of corporation land. Iliamna is located 15 miles from the deposit, and many residents worked for the Pebble Partnership in recent years, adding what the village said are much needed jobs to the community.
“The politics is making this issue being forced on us in Iliamna without scientific facts,” Reimers said. “There are special interest groups and others misrepresenting Iliamna. We do not want the EPA to enforce the 404 (c) Clean Water Act on our Native lands and everyone is disregarding us when we try to voice our opinion based on facts.”
But the many entities that lobbied for the federal action in the first place applauded the EPA’s move, saying the action is appropriate, including the Bristol Bay Native Corporation, which has more than 9,400 shareholders.
“While BBNC supports responsible development, including mining, the science has shown that the proposed Pebble mine presents unacceptable risks to Bristol Bay salmon, people and existing economies,” said the regional corporation’s President and Chief Executive Officer Jason Metrokin. “BBNC shareholders and area residents overwhelmingly agree. We will continue to focus on ending the threat of the proposed Pebble mine and on creating other appropriate economic opportunities and jobs.”
The proposed Pebble Mine sits in the headwaters the Bristol Bay region, across the Cook Inlet from Homer. The region produces close to half the world’s wild sockeye salmon, sustaining an economy that employs some 14,000 full and part-time workers and generates hundreds of millions of dollars.
A report by the EPA completed recently after years of study and public hearings concluded that even with the best-case scenario, the construction and running of proposed massive open-pit mine would cause potentially destructive impacts to salmon. The report noted that the proposed large-scale copper mine would likely impact salmon streams as well as wetlands, ponds and lakes, even without any sort of mining accident.
“This 404(c) process is not something — and I want to stress this — that the agency does very often. But the Bristol Bay fishery is an extraordinary resource, and it’s worthy of out-of the ordinary agency actions to protect it,” McCarthy said Friday morning while briefing the news media.
State, Pebble Partnership prepares to fight back
Pebble Limited Partnership’s recently appointed CEO, Tom Collier, said the partnership intends to move forward with its plans. Collier, who took over for John Shively last month and has a background in federal permitting law, said he remains confident in Pebble’s project and its position.
“We will continue to state our case with the EPA as we work through their process,” Collier said in a statement. “The EPA’s actions today are an unprecedented federal action and reflect a major overreach onto an asset of the State of Alaska. There is a prescribed science-based process for evaluating projects such as Pebble and the EPA has initiated a step that turns this process on its head.”
Collier said the partnership, which recently suffered a blow when its major financial backer, Anglo American, pulled out, said the EPA has been influenced by environmental advocacy organizations and the process has been biased.
“We have seen sufficient documentation from EPA FOIA materials supporting this position and Northern Dynasty Minerals asked the EPA inspector general in early January to fully evaluate the entire process,” Collier said.
The state, which owns the land on which the Pebble prospect lease sits, has suggested in the past that the issue may be up for legal review.
“We are prepared to take legal action,” said Sharon Leighow, press secretary for the Office of the Governor Sean Parnell in an email Monday.
Leighow said no timeline has been set on any such legal action.
EPA action doesn’t stop Pebble from filing permit applications
While the EPA’s action Friday, which consisted of sending letters to several agencies, including the state and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, did stop the corps from issuing any permits, it does not stop Pebble Partnership from filing permit applications with the state.
According to the EPA, those two actions can run their course concurrently if need be. The letter, sent from Regional 10 Administrator Dennis McLerran, outlines a four-step process under section 404(c) of the Clean Waters Act. Agencies have 15 days to respond to the letter, which was sent to the Pebble Partnership as well as the state and the corps.
Following this consultation period, a proposed determination will be published, including proposed prohibitions and restrictions on mining the Pebble deposit, and a public comment period will begin. One or more public hearings will be held. Following a review of those comments, a recommended determination will be developed. That will be followed by a second consultation period with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the state of Alaska and the site owners. A final determination will be made after that, including any final restrictions on the mining of the Pebble deposit.
McLerran noted in his letter that the review will only assess the effects on mining the Pebble deposit and will not consider other mining and non-mining related development in the watershed.
“The agency is taking this step because it has reason to believe the porphyry copper mining of the scale contemplated at the Pebble deposit would result in significant and unacceptable adverse effects to important fishery areas in the watershed,” he wrote.
But some are skeptical about the virtually unprecedented action by the EPA — calling it premature and voicing their concern that such actions prior to a state review could set a bad precedent between the state and the federal agency.
“I have always been clear about the severity of the EPA’s unwarranted involvement in the proposed Pebble Mine project, especially this early in the process,” said Congressman Don Young in a statement. “This expansive, jurisdictional power grab proposed by the EPA severely jeopardizes not only Alaska’s sovereignty, but the rights of states and all private property owners nationwide.”
Others, however, are celebrating.
Today’s announcement from the EPA shows that the clouds over Bristol Bay beginning to move, said Katherine Carscallen, sustainability director for the Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association in a release. “The EPA has clearly listened to our voices, and we are pleased they are responding to the request for Clean Water Act protections we made four years ago. There are still many steps in the process before the threat of building mines like Pebble in Bristol Bay is fully put to rest, but we are pleased this first and necessary step has been taken.”
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