Revised watershed assessment likely to be released in May; E&E News April 24, 2013

April 24, 2013
E&E News
Manuel Quinones

U.S. EPA acting Administrator Bob Perciasepe today said the agency's revised draft assessment of large-scale mining in Alaska's Bristol Bay watershed likely will come out in May.

Opponents of the potential Pebble LP gold and copper mine in the region have been pressuring EPA to finish its research, hoping the agency will take further action against the project.

Perciasepe spoke about the likely timeline during questioning by Alaska senators at an Appropriations Committee hearing this morning. Not satisfied with the EPA chief's initial answer, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) pressed, "Shortly is a poorly defined term; can you do any better?"

Perciasepe said he recognized the urgency of releasing the document well before summer months, when fishing and harvesting take the attention of many Alaskans.

"I can't say it's going to be next week, but we're within weeks," he said, "so we can have it out there during the May time period so people can look at it."

Asked about the remaining work on the assessment after a public comment period, Perciasepe told lawmakers, "I think the work we have to do following this next round of comment is pretty straightforward. I can see us getting it done by fall."

Alaska Democratic Sen. Mark Begich asked, "Fall meaning Alaska fall or D.C. fall?"

The EPA chief responded, "Let's use the solar ... the vernal or autumnal equinox, which I think is the same in Alaska."

The Pebble venture is a partnership between Vancouver, British Columbia-based Northern Dynasty Minerals Ltd. and London-based Anglo American PLC. Northern Dynasty Minerals said the partnership may be ready to submit the project for permitting this year after spending an additional $80 million in development. Backers say investment in the project is already near $700 million.

This week, Alaska Natives, fishermen and other Pebble skeptics have been making the rounds in Washington, D.C., meeting with Perciasepe and lawmakers on the issue.

They're upset the agency has decided to revise its original framework for the watershed assessment by submitting the revised draft for additional public comment and independent scientific review.

"We are weary. We are tired of waiting. We'd like to get the science review out. We want to see what it says," Peter Andrew, a Bristol Bay Native Corp. (BBNC) board member, said in an interview yesterday.

"And we hope that we can impose on EPA to get it done quickly, get the comment period time done, so that we can move along in the summer to go ahead into our harvest season," added Andrew, who has been working against the mine for several years.

Lobbying has been intense on both sides of the argument, even reaching the silver screen. Both sides have helped produce short films to make their case.

The BBNC-backed short "A Day in Our Bay" gave cameras to local residents, who recorded their experiences with subsistence living and Alaska's natural resources.

One resident said, "We could drink water from down here. That's how clean the water is. The pH is right on 6.5 to 7.0, that's how clean the water is around here. Even the pH tells me so. What more could I ask for?"

Nuna Resources Inc., a group that advocates for area residents to at least allow the mine to go through the permitting process and that has ties to the company, hosted a screening of "The Villages" in Washington, D.C., earlier this month.

While showing the region's beauty and subsistence living, the film also highlights its economic hardships, with comments from residents like "Nowadays you have to have money" and "There are no jobs."

Permitting reform
Mine opponents welcomed a ruling yesterday by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit validating retroactive EPA vetoes of Clean Water Act Section 404 dredge-and-fill permits (Greenwire, April 23).

The 404 permit, issued by the Army Corps of Engineers with EPA concurrence, is one of several that Pebble would likely need to move forward with development. One option for mine foes is for EPA to veto it pre-emptively, before the permitting process begins.

Murkowski, worried about such a scenario, asked Perciasepe, "What's the consequences of this court decision yesterday?"

He said, "That authority that is in the Clean Water Act under Section 404 since 1972 has been used less than 20 times in the history of the law. So it's not something EPA takes very frivolously."

With CWA Section 404 dredge-and-fill permits in the spotlight, Alaska lawmakers voted this year, at the urging of Gov. Sean Parnell (R), to study becoming the third state to administer its own 404 permit program with federal oversight. If the state moves forward with the plan, it is unclear whether it would have an effect on Pebble permitting.

Defending the measure, Parnell told lawmakers in a letter earlier this year, "This change will limit federal overreach in Alaska by giving the state authority to make jurisdictional determinations, timely process permits, and allow responsible resource development."

Tim Bristol, Alaska director for Trout Unlimited, the main group lobbying against Pebble, recognized that many state residents are wary of federal intervention in natural resource development.

"But when you really get back to the fact that this is about the Clean Water Act, and protecting clean water, Alaskans want to have those protections in place," he said. "Alaskans get clean water better than most people in the country."

Only Michigan and New Jersey currently control their own Section 404 permits. It can be expensive for states to take over.

"Significant disadvantages are the lack of federal funding for state programs, federal veto authority over permit decisions, and retained Corps jurisdiction over waters that are or could be used in interstate commerce, waters subject to the ebb and flow of the tide, and wetlands adjacent to these waters," Stoel Rives LLP attorney Ramona Monroe wrote in an analysis.

While officially taking a wait-and-see approach to Pebble, Parnell has made support for mining and resource development a key part of his agenda. Still, TU Alaska Deputy Chief Nelli Williams sees the company's hand in the Legislature's actions.

"The Pebble Partnership has been the No. 1 entity in the state of Alaska that has spent the most money, more money than any other entity, for lobbying in Juneau," she said.

from E&E News