by - Margaret Bauman
In a poignant address to environmentalists in Anchorage on Feb 8, a top regional official of the Environmental Protection Agency spoke of the challenges of climate change and told them that everyone owns some part of the solution.
"We are all in this together," said Dennis McLerran, administrator of EPA Region 10 in Seattle. "Nearly all the work we are doing here is climate change.
"My experience is focus on what we can do rather than what we can't do," McLerran said in a keynote address to the Alaska Forum on the Environment, at its 18th annual gathering in Anchorage.
The need to reduce carbon emissions, and deal with multiple issues, from melting glaciers and permafrost to cleaning up marine fuel, there is no time to waste, he said. "The time for action is now."
Since he became administrator in February 2010, McLerran has taken on EPA responsibility for dealing with the proposed Pebble copper, gold and molybdenum in Southwest Alaska, the proposed Donlin Creek gold mine in the Kuskokwim Gold Belt near Bethel, transboundary waterway issues in Southeast Alaska, the impact of increased shipping through the Alaskan Arctic and much more.
"One thing that does keep me up at night is the possibility of oil spills in Alaska," he said. A minor spill at Pump Station 1 of the trans-Alaska oil pipeline in January of 2011 prompted a shut down of the pipeline, shining the light on the need to be well prepared, he said. Wintertime spills in Alaska are a nightmare scenario, he added, while praising the U.S. Coast Guard, Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation and oil spill response organizations across the state for their efforts.
During his tenure as regional administrator, McLerran has been to many parts of Alaska, meeting with tribal leaders and others in nearly 30 villages who are witnesses to the struggles rural Alaska is facing with climate change. "It has been a truly remarkable time for me," he said, adding his thanks for everyone who has supported the EPA's work in Alaska.
He has brought as many people at high levels as he could to see for themselves what is happening, he said "because you can't understand Alaska without being on the ground. It is very important to bring people here."
As a political appointee, McLerran said, his fifth opportunity to address the Alaska Forum on the Environment will probably be his last, with a new regional administrator to be appointed by the next president of the United States.
Still, as he looked out at an audience that included a number of youthful participants engaged in environmental issues, he expressed optimism for what those gathered there could accomplish. "This is like the Match.com of environmental protection, where relationships are formed," he said.
President Obama's trip to Alaska last August for Conference on Global Leadership in the Arctic was a coup for Alaska, a trip focused on climate change and the work that lies ahead, he said. "Obama wanted people to know that climate change is real, happening now. He wanted people to know that his administration was doing something about it."
McLerran spoke about the United States' assuming the two-year rotating chairmanship of the Arctic Council last April, with a focus on improving economic and living conditions in Arctic communities, Arctic Ocean safety, security and stewardship, and climate change. He noted that the State Department support of a proposal by the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation for an international conference in Alaska to discuss making water and sewer more available and affordable in rural areas.
As regional administrator, McLerran is charged with overseeing the implementation and enforcement of federal environmental rules and regulations in Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Alaska, including 271 tribal governments in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska.
In Alaska those responsibilities included responding to a request from tribal groups in the Bristol Bay region of Southwest Alaska to determine if development of the Pebble prospect in a generally uninhabited part of the Bristol Bay watershed posed potential adverse affects to the watershed, home of the world's largest wild sockeye salmon fishery.
Most area residents rely heavily on subsistence, from hunting and fishing to picking wild berries. Area wildlife, from eagles to bears, also depend on the fisheries.
While Northern Dynasty Minerals, the Canadian mining firm behind the Pebble mine, contends the mine can be built and operated in harmony with the wild salmon fishery, tribal entities, commercial and sport fishermen and others were hardly convinced that the integrity of the watershed would remain intact.
After extensive meetings, and testimony from all sides, including the scientific community, the EPA concluded that the potential for severe adverse environmental affects from the proposed mine did exist.
The Pebble Partnership responded with litigation, three lawsuits filed in federal District Court in Alaska in 2014. McLerran said he was pleased that the EPA Office of Inspector General report that found no evidence of bias in how the EPA conducted its assessment of potential impacts of large scale mining on the Bristol Bay watershed.
U.S. District Judge H. Russel Holland dismissed in 2014 a complaint that challenged the EPA's authority to do the watershed assessment, and that decision was upheld by the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last May.
Still before the courts are a lawsuit contending that the Bristol Bay watershed assessment involved collusion of the EPA with environmentalists opposed to the mine, a violation of the Federal Advisory Committee Act, and a lawsuit in which the Pebble Limited Partnership contends that EPA violated the Freedom of Information Act. McLerran said the EPA feels it will prevail in the litigation alleging collusion, "But it's in the discovery phase right now, which will take some time, depositions, and document production has to occur before we can engage in things like a summary judgment motion." As for the FOIA litigation questioning whether documents have been properly disclosed, "we at EPA feel that we are still meeting all of our requirements under FOIA," he said.
Meanwhile there is an injunction in place that prevents the EPA from taking action from a regulatory standpoint until these cases are resolved, and the earliest that that could happen is sometime later this year, he said.
Region 10 of the EPA is also very engaged in the environmental review process under way for the proposed Donlin Creek mine, McLerran said. The agency has had a number of staff participating in the working groups looking at various options for tailings, storage, impacts on air quality and barge movements on the river.
"We are very engaged in the Donlin Creek review, and the mining company there has been very collaborative about it, addressing the various issues that people have come forward and said they want information about, he said. EPA is involved and participating with a number of federal and state partners to work with the mining company on their environmental review, he said.
Over the next year or so there will be more activity on finalizing the environmental impact statement and developing details on the permit applications, he said.
Region 10 of the EPA has also been working with state and federal officials and the governments of British Columbia and Canada in resolving concerns about potential adverse environmental impact of British Columbia mines upstream of transboundary waterways critical to salmon habitat on fisheries.
McLerran told a breakaway session at the Alaska Forum on the Environment that he was pleased with communications to date, including the decision of the new Trudeau government in Canada to recognize that involvement of First Nations in the discussions. "The tribal voice is incredibly important in this discussion on transboundary waters," he said.
The EPA is very engaged in these discussions and wants their Canadian counterparts to know that the EPA is very concerned about the impact of mining on the waterways, he said.
Other presenters at the breakaway session included representatives from the EPA, Alaska DEC, Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska, the Xatsull First Nation, Inside Passage Waterkeepers and the United Tribal Transboundary Mining Work Group.
"It is a common thing with zoning that you don't put a strip club near a school or a church," Olsen told the group. "Why not have areas where you just don't put a mine. Then you don't need an elaborate scheme to prevent a disaster.
"A lot of times they brought canaries into the mines because they could detect poison gas," Olsen said. "Alaska Natives are like canaries in the coal mine, but we are not brought into the mine. The mine is brought to us."
It is important, Olsen said, to have people out on the land involved in these discussions, because people out on the land are the ones telling you about the changes. The way these mines are designed, water during operation has to be treated while operating, and they are going to leave tailings ponds.
"They are like time bombs," he said of the tailings ponds, which have to be treated forever, and forever is a long time.
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