House Republicans are ramping up their scrutiny of U.S. EPA's review of the impacts of possible large-scale mining on natural resources in the Bristol Bay, Alaska, watershed.
Critics of Pebble LP's potential gold and copper mine are hoping EPA can block or at least limit the project. But mine supporters say the federal government should let the company go through the permitting process.
Last month, Rep. Paul Broun (R-Ga.), chairman of the House Science, Space and Technology Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight, rebuked EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson for canceling a planned briefing on the issue. "I am disappointed by this turn of events," he wrote, "and hope this is not a sign of how your agency will proceed on this matter."
Lawmakers got their briefing this month ahead of the agency's release of a scientific review of its draft watershed assessment. The report by reviewers selected by an EPA contractor urged the agency to provide more backup for its finding that a large mine would threaten the world's largest sockeye salmon fishery (E&ENews PM, Nov. 9).
"We received the briefing but at the time did not have the benefit of reading the report," committee spokesman Zachary Kurz said. "Once members have had a chance to digest the report, we may follow up."
The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which has long been examining EPA's work on Pebble, asked for more documents in late September, including letters and transcripts related to the watershed assessment peer review.
A committee spokesman said EPA had yet to turn over all the documents requested. Both sides are in talks over how to proceed. Hearings are possible.
"As you know, this was a very long development in which huge investment has been made, and a proactive bypass of the ordinary [permitting] process would be inappropriate," panel Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) said in an interview.
"We're going to have an appropriate hearing along with resources on that to make it clear that we support the historic and ordinary process, and not pre-deciding it, particularly after so much time has been invested in qualifying this property."
In the Senate, Alaska Republican Lisa Murkowski, the ranking member of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, has also been keeping the pressure on EPA. She said in a recent statement, "I remain concerned that the agency has chosen to evaluate a hypothetical mine that does not reflect modern mining practices."
Murkowski added, "Alaskans deserve a fair and unbiased environmental review of the Pebble project once a project description has been submitted. A pre-emptive veto by the EPA would make no more sense than a pre-emptive approval."
The Pebble venture -- a partnership between London-based Anglo American PLC and Vancouver, British Columbia-based Northern Dynasty Minerals Ltd. -- spent about $500,000 on lobbying last year and $425,000 so far this year, according to disclosure records and the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.
Lobbyists who have worked on behalf of Pebble include Duane Gibson, who once served as an aide to two powerful Republican appropriators, the late Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska and former Rep. Bob Livingston of Louisiana. Both men chaired the appropriations committees of their respective chambers.
Anglo American itself has also focused on lobbying on behalf of what could become one of its top projects, having spent at least $310,000 this year on issues including the watershed assessment. However, its commitment to Pebble was brought into question after CEO Cynthia Carroll said she would step down.
Northern Dynasty President Ron Thiessen didn't mince words in a recent statement about the peer review of EPA's watershed assessment. "The EPA's flawed and rushed Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment process should be shelved now," he said.
Trout Unlimited, the main opposition group to Pebble, is counting on lobbyist Mark Rey, former undersecretary for natural resources and environment at the Department of Agriculture in the George W. Bush administration. Another group, the Bristol Bay Native Corp., a top supporter of EPA's study, has used former Stevens and Murkowski aide Jon DeVore.
Opponents also count on backing from the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Pew Environment Group. Both sides have flown Alaska residents to make their case to lawmakers and regulatory agencies.
Shoren Brown, Trout Unlimited's Bristol Bay campaign chief, said Pebble and its allies were trying to steer attention away from key issues by focusing on EPA's study.
"I think they're playing politics with science right now," Brown said in an interview, adding that EPA is going "above and beyond" to make its study stand up to scrutiny, including possible litigation.
Oversight of the project on Capitol Hill will remain largely the same next year in the next Congress, with Republicans maintaining control of the House and Democrats of the Senate.
Brown praised the re-election of Sens. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) and Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), a key ally. President Obama's re-election, Brown said, means EPA has more leeway in determining the future of its watershed assessment.
"The outcome of the election, generally speaking, is good for our issue," Brown said. "We're not going to have to start from scratch with a new administration."
Reporter Hema Parmar contributed.