With the draft EIS for the Pebble Mine set to be released this Friday, Feb. 22, we on the Kenai Peninsula have something to learn from the elders of the Gwich’in and Iñupiaq Tribes who are in an existential fight against oil and gas development in the calving grounds of the Porcupine Caribou Herd, which their people have depended on since time immemorial.
Only recently, with the passage of a rider drafted by Sen. Murkowski on the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, did it become possible to develop the land in the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Native Alaskan Tribes have been fighting development of the coastal plain for 30 years, but, they have the distinct feeling that their point of view isn’t important to permitting agencies. Documents aren’t available in Inupiaq or Gwich’in; and at a recent meeting, BLM said that only one village was consulted during the drafting of the environmental impact statement.
Over 200 people showed up in Fairbanks for the Bureau of Land Management’s first public meeting on the Draft EIS in early February. Because of the size and controversy of the project, the meeting did not allow for public testimony to be given; instead, very much like the Pebble Project meetings in Homer, scientists stood near posters explaining the environmental impact statement process and two court stenographers sat behind a curtain to take testimony. After a short BLM presentation, the crowd demanded public commenting time, calling out, “Bring out the stenographer! Bring out the stenographer!”
Alaska Native elders were given time to speak first, and testimonies filled the remaining time. Elder after elder stood up to say that this herd and this land is basic to their human rights and food security. BLM shut the lights off at 8 p.m., while Native attendees began singing a drum song: “We need an actual public hearing, we need BLM to do a better job!” After the events at the Fairbanks meeting, all the subsequent public meetings allowed for public testimony. You can see footage of testimonies of elders and tribal members on the Defend the Sacred AK Facebook page.
The “public process” the Gwich’in are up against is very similar to what we are dealing with on the Pebble Mine. In both instances, permitting is being pushed through so quickly it defies common sense, let alone the rule of law. In the coastal plain, the draft EIS was completed in just five months; Pebble’s turn-around will be about a year. That’s how long it supposedly took agencies to study and assess all impacts to lands, waters, fish, wildlife and the people who depend on them. It is far from clear that the EIS process is being conducted in good faith, with adequate attention to public input and science.
And it gets worse: permit applications are missing the most basic information needed to assess impacts. For example, consider that Pebble Limited Partnership’s application did not include plans singed off by an engineer for a dredged channel and dock proposed in Kamishak Bay in Cook Inlet, where winter storms often bring 100 mph winds, nor did it include a demonstration that the new smaller mine they are pushing would be economically viable. Similarly, the Coastal Plain EIS did no climate change assessment. All of this would seem to violate the laws that are supposed to guide these procedures and feels decidedly undemocratic.
A recent review of all EISs from 2010 to 2017 by the Council on Environmental Quality found that the average EIS completion time was 4.5 years. No more. Acting Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt has issued a memo that arbitrarily limits EIS studies to no more than 150 pages and requires that they be completed in less than one year.
Public notice is also going out the window. The people of Fairbanks were given only four days notice before their open house; notice came one day after the first hard copies of the draft EIS were released (there are now four hard copies of the Draft EIS available in the state). Comment periods for both Pebble and the Coastal Plain projects are about half of what they were before the current administration took power.
Something’s going on here. The public is less relevant than ever. When Pebble comes to town, we need to stand up like the Gwich’in and Iñupiaq elders. Also, bring your lawyer.
• By Kachemak Bay Conservation Society