Pebble mine battle moves to Capitol Hill

  • By ELWOOD BREHMER
  • Sunday, November 15, 2015 7:46pm
  • News

The fight over the proposed Pebble mine at times makes politics look tame.

That impassioned battle resumed on Capitol Hill Nov. 5 when the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology heard from those on the front lines of both sides. The committee also received testimony from former Maine senator and Defense Secretary William Cohen, whose recently published report about the Environmental Protection Agency’s involvement in the matter has once again made Pebble a topic of national debate.

Published Oct. 6, “The Cohen Report,” as it is known, questions the objectivity and scientific process of the EPA’s Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment. The assessment is the baseline document used by the EPA to justify its attempt to block Pebble development through its Clean Water Act Section 404(c) authority, which gives the agency the power to prohibit projects that would have an “unacceptable adverse effect” on fish, wildlife or wetlands habitat.

The title of the hearing, Examining EPA’s Predetermined Efforts to Block the Pebble Mine, leaves little wonder about the sentiment of committee chair Rep. Lamar Smith, a Texas Republican.

“Secretary Cohen’s report lays out evidence that shows collusion and a cozy relationship between the EPA and groups actively opposed to the Pebble mine,” Smith said in a statement to open the hearing.

In its ongoing lawsuit against the EPA in U.S. District Court of Alaska, Pebble contends the agency violated the Federal Advisory Committee Act by working with anti-mine groups to develop the Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment and shunning Pebble from the process.

Additionally, the mine developers claim the agency had already determined it would use its 404(c) authority to prohibit a large mine on Pebble’s copper and gold claims before the multi-year assessment process officially began in 2011.

The judge in that case, Judge H. Russel Holland, granted Pebble an injunction about a year ago, halting the 404(c) process until the suit is resolved.

The EPA argues it met with Pebble representatives 30 times while drafting the assessment and that Pebble had additional opportunities to have its voice heard.

The Federal Advisory Committee Act, or FACA, requires government agencies remain impartial and hold open meetings — published in the Federal Register — with both sides of contentious issues represented.

Pebble Limited Partnership board of directors chair John Shively, a former Alaska Department of Natural Resources commissioner, said Nov. 5 at the Alaska Miners Association annual meeting in Anchorage that EPA Region 10 Administrator Dennis McLerran lied to him in a letter sent when the assessment began by claiming it was not aimed at stopping Pebble. Shively also asserted that the EPA lied to the public about how the movement to stop Pebble began.

“I spent a fair amount of time in rural Alaska and I never believed that Tribal governments out in Southwest Alaska had any idea what Section 404(c) of the Clean Water Act was,” Shively said.

Pebble insists it has evidence obtained through Freedom of Information Act Requests that prove the EPA helped draft the petition submitted by six Bristol Bay-area Tribes that urged the agency to invoke its 404(c) power and spurred it to begin the assessment.

“Unfortunately, it appears that the Pebble mine project is another victim of this EPA’s extreme agenda,” Smith stated. “In fact, one of the former EPA employees who this committee found to have colluded with environmental groups to stop the Pebble mine project fled the country when Congress attempted to interview him.”

The employee Smith referenced is former Kenai-based EPA biologist Phillip North, who was scheduled to be deposed in Anchorage Nov. 12 by Pebble and EPA attorneys.

Pebble has said it believes North is in Australia, but his exact whereabouts are unknown. In an interview with the Redoubt Reporter published July 17, 2013, North said he planned on sailing around the world with his family after his retirement from the agency.

The 364-page Cohen report supports Pebble’s claims. At the same time, groups opposed to the mine have hammered Cohen’s assertion that it is an independent document because Pebble Limited Partnership commissioned it.

Former Republican Alaska Senate President Rick Halford testified to the House committee that before learning of Pebble he had never opposed a mine project. However, the size and location of the proposal by Pebble Limited Partnership forced him to take a stand against its development.

“The size of the Pebble deposit is beyond imagination,” Halford said. “The pit would be well over a mile deep in places, and the footprint would cause the direct loss of between 24 and 94 miles of stream; 1,200 to 4,900 acres of wetlands; and 100 to 450 acres of ponds and lakes. The waste would be stored on site in perpetuity.”

While not directly responding to Halford, Shively said Nov. 5 back in Anchorage that the impact of the mine has been vastly overblown.

“The idea that you could build something (on) several thousand acres, with the kind of grade that we have — over 99 percent of what we take out of the ground is basically just dirt — how we could devastate a fishery is beyond me, but that’s what people have been told,” Shively said.

He described the mines the EPA drafted as “fantasy mine plans.” Shively added that the EPA’s requirements for an acceptable mine in Bristol Bay are for a project that is uneconomically small.

“(The EPA) designs mines that fail; we’re going to design a mine that succeeds,” he said.

Halford also cited more than a dozen claims by Pebble that it would begin the federal permitting process, the first of which came in 2004. He called those claims “empty promises” to start the public review process which would bring resolution to the issue for area residents.

Cohen’s report omits the fact that Pebble itself has been the only thing stopping the project from entering the National Environmental Policy Act review process, Halford said.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who has been a harsh critic of the EPA under President Obama, also criticized Pebble back in 2013 for not releasing a formal mine plan that could be reviewed.

Shively insisted Pebble Limited Partnership will enter the review process on its own timeframe, not the opposition’s timeframe.

Halford added that the EPA’s involvement in evaluating what would be the largest open-pit mine in the country that would lead to obvious environmental impacts should not be a surprise.

“As a resident of Bristol Bay, I can tell you that nothing seems predetermined to me in EPA’s actions,” Halford testified. “EPA collected information and data, met with and listened to both sides, and engaged in extensive outreach to all the stakeholders. I do not believe that EPA’s engagement itself was out of the ordinary as it is common for developers and the public to seek EPA’s perspective in advance of formal project initiation.”

Elwood Brehmer can be reached at elwood.brehmer@alaskajournal.com.

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