BRISTOL BAY: Rival factions ready ammo for Pebble round 2
Dylan Brown, E&E reporter
Published: Wednesday, April 27, 2016
Rival factions in the ongoing debate over the Pebble copper and gold mine in southwestern Alaska are gearing up for the latest House hearing on the controversial project.
The House Science, Space and Technology Committee will interrogate U.S. EPA Region 10 Administrator Dennis McLerran tomorrow about his agency's proposed pre-emptive restrictions on the Bristol Bay-area development.
During a previous hearing, Republicans championed mining company Pebble LP's accusation that EPA colluded with environmental and Alaska Native activists to predetermine the conclusion of the Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment.
The assessment informed EPA's decision in 2014 to deploy seldom-used Clean Water Act authority to limit mining based on the threat to one of the world's premier salmon fisheries.
With only McLerran facing lawmakers during round two, mine opponents flooded the committee with letters ahead of tomorrow's hearing.
Alaska Native leaders in Bristol Bay told the committee members yesterday to get out of their inside-the-Beltway offices.
"Visiting in person will allow you to see for yourselves what is so obvious to those of us from Bristol Bay -- the proposed Pebble mine is not responsible development for our region," wrote United Tribes of Bristol Bay President Robert Heyano, Bristol Bay Native Corp. Vice President Daniel Cheyette and Kimberly Williams, executive director of Nunamta Aulukestai, an Alaska Native nonprofit.
Opponents see inherent risks to precious water quality in building what is expected to be one of the world's largest open-pit mines, and the associated disposal areas, around critical headwaters.
Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas) also heard from nine sportsmen's groups in his home state, including the Dallas Safari Club and the Guadalupe River chapter of Trout Unlimited, a leading mine opponent.
In a letter, sportsmen said about 1,000 temporary mining jobs would put 14,000 commercial and recreational fishery jobs at risk. Pebble foes are hoping such pleas will sway outdoors-minded Republicans.
"Millions of anglers and hunters from Texas and across this country are asking you to recognize that Pebble Mine is too risky," the sportsmen wrote Smith.
Critics allege that Pebble is already struggling to clean up more than 1,350 exploration drill holes, as its parent company, Northern Dynasty Minerals Ltd., has fallen on hard times with commodity prices down and its sole asset on hold (Greenwire, March 31).
Northern Dynasty's annual report indicates the Vancouver, British Columbia-based company suffered a $26.1 million net loss in 2015 and was operating at a $300.7 million deficit. Auditor Deloitte LLP said conditions "raise substantial doubt about the Company's ability to continue as a going concern."
"As the people who live in Bristol Bay, we are concerned that if [Northern Dynasty] fails as a company the environmental damage caused by [Pebble]'s exploration activities will be left unaddressed," the tribal leaders wrote.
'Quite a bit of material'
Pebble spokesman Mike Heatwole dismissed the accusations last year as a "sensational" political ploy to cast doubt on the company's "good work" (Greenwire, Nov. 4, 2015).
Since then, Pebble has focused on litigation against EPA, chiefly its Federal Advisory Committee Act lawsuit alleging collusion between EPA and environmentalists.
"The role of government [EPA] is to objectively review projects via the legal and regulatory framework," he said in an email. "As we now know, that clearly did not happen with Pebble and the evidence continues to mount against the EPA's egregious behavior and clear violation of due process."
Heatwole said recent depositions have produced "quite a bit of material" indicating EPA bias and predetermination, including the long-awaited questioning of former EPA ecologist Phil North.
Pebble and GOP-led House committees spent years trying to subpoena North, who retired to travel abroad with his family after helping research the Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment (E&E Daily, April 4).
According to Heatwole, North was a relentless mine opponent, and superiors all the way up to EPA headquarters still allowed him to keep a leading role in the watershed assessment and hypothetical mine plan.
"They knew he had a pre-determined interest in vetoing the Pebble Project, and they gave him the keys to the study anyway," Heatwole said, noting that EPA's proposed pre-emptive action is based on the assessment.
Pebble has roundly dismissed an EPA inspector general investigation that found "no evidence of bias" on the part of the agency, but mine proponents pointed out a "possible misuse of position" by North, who was not mentioned by name in the report (Greenwire, Jan. 13).
'Self-interested private dollars'
North called the insinuation "irresponsible and unprofessional" innuendo, defending his work with environmental groups as part of his role as a civil servant.
"It is really no different from Pebble having meeting after meeting after meeting -- thousands of hours of agency time -- to perfect their project," he said during a recent interview, referring to the pre-application process.
Committee aides spoke with North in private for their investigation into EPA's actions against Pebble. He is not scheduled to testify tomorrow.
Taryn Kiekow Heimer, a top advocate with the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the inspector general validated the science behind the Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment that underwent peer review twice.
"The Inspector General's report confirms in no uncertain terms that the agency acted fairly, transparently and scientifically in assessing the impacts of large-scale mining (like the Pebble Mine) in Bristol Bay," she wrote in a blog post.
In November, NRDC led efforts to discredit another investigation of EPA's actions by former Secretary of Defense William Cohen, hired by Pebble to scrutinize the issue (E&ENews PM, Nov. 4, 2015).
The Cohen report found pre-emptive action "fundamentally unfair," recommending that EPA allow regulators to finish the typical National Environmental Policy Act permitting process.
Pebble CEO Tom Collier said: "The way in which we've been denied due process is embarrassing, and they should simply back away and give us due process."
In a review submitted to the committee yesterday, NRDC Western Director Joel Reynolds added a recent letter from Pebble's attorneys to a list of Pebble-backed analyses to be ignored.
"Let us not allow self-interested private dollars to undermine a legitimate government audit process, mandated and independently funded by Congress," he wrote.