The Pebble Project is a proposed copper mine about 15 miles from my hometown of Iliamna in southwestern Alaska. The Pebble deposit contains one of the world’s largest discoveries of copper, and if the proposed mine secures more than 60 different regulatory approvals from about a dozen state and federal agencies, the project would create about 2,000 construction jobs and 1,000 permanent positions. For permitting, the developers will have to prove to regulators the project will not harm the surrounding environment, including Bristol Bay’s sockeye salmon population.
The Pebble Partnership has invested $120 million so far on environmental and socioeconomic studies that will be used to develop a formal permit application, which regulators will spend three to five years reviewing. But that’s not good enough for the national environmental groups who oppose the Pebble mine. Instead, they want the EPA to take the unprecedented and probably unlawful step of using Section 404 of the Clean Water Act to preemptively veto the project before any permit applications can be filed. The EPA appears to be following those marching orders, because in May the agency issued a draft report stating that a copper mine in the Bristol Bay Watershed would likely harm salmon populations. If the draft report is finalized, the EPA could then veto all mining activity in the region.
The State of Alaska is deeply troubled by this potential EPA power grab, as the Pebble site is located on state-owned land that’s been set aside for mineral development. The EPA’s draft report is essentially a literature review that contains no new or on-the-ground scientific research conducted as part of the assessment. Without a permit application, the EPA made up its own mine plan, assuming environmentally harmful technologies and practices “from the late 1800 and early 1900s” – historic examples that do not apply directly to a modern mine under current regulations , according to Alaska’s Department of Natural Resources. The draft report presents a “biased picture of only adverse impacts of a hypothetical mine,” and key sections “start with conclusions, and then subsequently follow with facts that support the conclusion,” which is “inappropriate for a scientific document developed by a regulatory agency.” But of all the State of Alaska’s criticisms, this was perhaps the most revealing: “No reference to, or consideration of, winter freezing or permafrost is provided in the risk assessment.” That’s right – the EPA wrote a report about Alaska and forgot the part about winter.
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