The Dividing Mine, Part 2: Murkowski, Pebble disagree on significance of EPA action

Published: Aug. 8, 2019 at 5:35 PM AKDT
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This is the second piece in a two part story. Click here to read Part 1.

The EPA’s decision on July 30 to withdraw a preemptive veto that would have stopped the Pebble Mine from being developed reignited passions on both sides of the issue.

“Really frustrating. At the end of the day, in my disillusion, do I think that the proponents of the mine will succeed? No, I don’t,” said Norm Van Vactor, CEO of the Bristol Bay Economic Development Corporation. “We’ve had a lot of bumps in the road. This is another one of those bumps.”

In a press release the day of the EPA’s action, Pebble Partnership CEO Tom Collier thanked Gov. Mike Dunleavy for encouraging the EPA to withdraw its proposed determination and characterized the move as one of a series of important milestones the company believes indicate it’s moving toward acquiring the permit needed to build the mine.

Yet in the Pebble Partnership’s Anchorage office, Collier downplayed the importance of the EPA’s decision as a factor supporting his confidence.

“We’ve always thought we had a pretty good chance to get a permit, and that has nothing to do with this withdrawal of the proposed determination. The thing to look at when you’re in permitting is the draft environmental impact statement, and I don’t know in my career of almost 40 years of permitting I’ve ever seen a more positive, unequivocal draft environmental impact statement,” Collier said. “This one concludes without question, this project will not do any damage to the Bristol Bay fishery, period.”

After the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers released the draft EIS in February, more than 115,000 agencies, organizations and individuals submitted comments on the document.

The EPA's comments on the Pebble DEIS suggested the statement underestimated impacts to the ecosystem.

The EPA submitted its

on the Draft EIS on July 1. The 115-page document points out data gaps, assumptions and underestimated adverse impacts in the USACE’s Draft EIS. The EPA found that the project may result in substantial impacts to waters of the United States within Bristol Bay and Cook Inlet. The EPA is now working within a 90-day window to determine and notify the USACE if the proposed project will have “substantial and unacceptable impacts to aquatic resources of national importance.”

Sen. Murkowski, who is also the chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resource Committee, said she supports the EPA withdrawing the proposed determination for the project. However, she says she does not believe Pebble has reached the threshold needed to acquire a permit.

“To have a situation where there is such uncertainty to a process, that even without defining it, you’re basically told you can’t meet the threshold for a permit - if we allow that, whether it is through the EPA or through our other regulatory agencies that you would be able to stop a project before a project has even been defined, how will it be possible to ever attract any investment, to ever encourage any level of development?” Sen. Murkowski said. “What happens now is the EPA is still very much involved in the review of the Pebble Project. But what they’re involved in now is the actual project that has been laid down, the the actual project that we saw in the Draft EIS. So the EPA is still at any point in the process now going forward, they’re able to exercise their authority under the 404(c) process to basically refuse to issue that permit.”

Sen. Murkowski says the comments made by the EPA and other agencies and organizations drive her concern.

“We as Alaskans shouldn’t be willing to trade one resource for another. So you’re going to have to convince me that you can actually build this mine and do so in a way that will not harm the ecosystem that is supporting and sustaining not only the salmon, but the people and everything else that is in that region. So it’s a very, very high bar that I think has been outlined,” Sen. Murkowski said. “I’ve seen some comments, they seem to be more confident they can meet the concerns that were expressed by EPA… But again it was not just the EPA. It was the EPA, and the state, and the Department of Interior and other agencies that all seem to share the same concerns. So based on where we are now, based on what I’ve seen, they have not met it. They have not met the requirements, in my view, for a permit to issue.”

Senator Murkowski spoke with Channel 2 for nearly an hour, stating that the withdrawal of the EPA's proposed determination was the right step.

Collier dismissed the EPA’s comments on the Draft EIS as potentially damaging to the success of the project. Rather, he characterizes them as things that can be easily fixed before the final environmental impact statement is created.

“I don’t think they were as critical as I think a lot of other people thought they were. A lot of the things the EPA raised were questions about things that had been covered in the draft, because information wasn’t repeated in the draft. It was instead included in attachments to the draft, so it’s pretty easy to fix most of those comments,” Collier said. “There are no show stoppers that I saw.”

Although the withdrawal of the preemptive veto was celebrated by Pebble supporters, it does guarantee the EPA is completely out the path to development.

“Removal of the proposed determination does not give Pebble the green light,” Sen. Murkowski said.

The EPA still has the authority to veto the project even if the Army Corps issues a permit. However, the Pebble Partnership doesn’t think that is likely.

“Whether or not they have the right, I don’t question. But what I’m saying, it is highly unlikely that they would exercise that right when in fact they just withdrew a proposed veto on this project last week,” Collier said. “Why would they withdraw it if in fact they intend to veto it a year from now?”.

Currently the USACE is in the process of evaluating comments on the Draft EIS to create the Final Environmental Impact State. The USACE hopes to have that finished in the first quarter of 2020. The document will be used to inform its decision on the project, which is expected to come mid-2020.

Sockeye salmon fill a lake on the Wood River system on their way to spawn.

For opponents of the mine, even if USACE issues a permit to the Pebble Partnership and the EPA does not intervene by issuing a veto, a third option will almost certainly slow the progress of Pebble Mine.

“There are some good people out there working on good things, and it’s sad that maybe this might have to go to court, but its that’s what has to happen next, I guess those will be some of the next steps that we take," Van Vactor said. "That and voting in the next election.”

With the high stakes and widespread interest in the project, Van Vactor expects a broad-based coalition to bring a challenge in court, should Pebble be permitted.

“I think you’re going to see regional corporations, you’re going to see Native corporations, you’re going to see Native villages and tribes. That could very well be one consortium, one coalition,” Van Vactor said. “And I think you have commercial interest, sport fishing interests, subsistence interest. I mean, we’re all affected by this.”

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