Anchorage, Alaska, April 26, 2013 – Pebble Partnership CEO John Shively issued the following statement in response to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) releasing a second draft Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment evaluating the estimated environmental impacts of a hypothetical mine on the Bristol Bay Watershed:
“While we need to review the document in detail, it seems the EPA has not changed its deeply flawed approach of creating and evaluating a completely hypothetical mine plan, instead of waiting until a real, detailed mine plan is submitted to regulators as part of a complete permit application. By continuing on this course, the EPA is ignoring a chorus of scientific, legal and regulatory criticism, not to mention the legitimate questions that have been raised by at least three different committees of the U.S. Congress.
“We have spent the better part of ten years working on designing a development plan for a mine at the Pebble Deposit utilizing some of the premiere mining engineers and environmental scientists in the world. The EPA has spent two short years on a desktop exercise with little or no input from miners. Anyone can design a mine that fails. We’ll design a mine that will operate safely and responsibly and will meet the high regulatory standards for development in Alaska.
“At a time when the entire executive branch is having to cut important program funding because of sequestration, it is stunning that the EPA continues to pursue this matter instead of waiting for a permit application to review through the well-established regulatory process. I think the public and our elected officials have the right to know how much taxpayer money has been spent on this unnecessary effort thus far.
“Even more disturbing is the fact that the EPA’s actions are consistent with the demands of those who want to deny the Pebble Partnership the right to submit a permit application. Their threat of a “preemptive veto” is not only unprecedented but also precludes and biases the lengthy, transparent, rigorous, and science-based process set out by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) that has been used to evaluate such proposals for decades.
“EPA has stated that this flawed watershed assessment will inform agency decision making, and that is of great concern. Every year across America, development projects worth roughly $200 billion rely on that process to obtain Section 404 permits; even the threat of a “preemptive veto” will introduce uncertainty into the process that threatens to hurt the entire U.S. economy, not just a proposed mine in Alaska.
“The Pebble Partnership is simply asking for due process: the right to submit a permit application, and to have our plans reviewed, based on the best-available science and the relevant federal, state and local laws. We know this process will last several years and many questions will be asked about whether a large-scale copper and gold mine can safely co-exist with the surrounding environment, and especially the salmon fishery of the Bristol Bay region. As we have consistently stated, if we can’t build a mine that co-exists with a healthy fishery, we will not build the mine.
“We will carefully review this new draft before providing more detailed comments. We remain committed to working with the EPA under NEPA when we have submitted a detailed mine plan for state and federal review.”
BACKGROUND ON THE EPA’S DRAFT WATERSHED ASSESSMENT
The EPA’s assertion that it has the legal authority to preemptively veto development projects and the agency’s first version of the Draft Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment (DBBWA) have been roundly criticized.
Alaska Attorney General Michael Geraghty has stated the EPA’s actions are “premature and unprecedented” and the agency should be “waiting to evaluate real proposals, as Congress clearly intended” when it passed the Clean Water Act. Alaska’s Department of Natural Resources has warned that the DBBWA “provides examples of impacts from mines developed from the late 1800 and early 1900s” and fails to consider “consider current mine technology or regulatory framework and oversight to prevent environmental harm.” Nuna Resources Inc., an Alaska Native group that advocates for a sustainable economy in the Bristol Bay region, said the EPA “based its report on a hypothetical mine that was poorly built, poorly run and therefore guaranteed to harm the environment.”
Even more criticism of the DBBWA came from the experts who served on the peer-review panel. For example, Charles Slaughter of the University of Idaho used the term “hogwash” to describe the “statistical probabilities that were assigned to various scenarios” in the DBBWA. Panelist Dirk van Zyl of the University of British Columbia said “it is impossible to know whether the hypothetical mine scenario is realistic,” and therefore it is “not sufficient for the assessment.” Geologist Steve Buckley criticized parts of the DBBWA for containing “no detailed discussion of engineering practices” and “a lack of any detailed research into applicable engineering and mitigation methods” to protect the surrounding environment.
The Brattle Group consulting firm has estimated roughly 60,000 development projects, worth about $220 billion, need Section 404 permits every year. For this reason, the National Mining Association has warned the EPA’s actions in Bristol Bay “are premature and will have a stifling effect on investment” across the entire U.S. economy. According to the NMA, the DBBWA raises the following question: “How can companies believe that industry is given a fair chance in the U.S. when the government releases incendiary, one-sided studies based on rocky science and questionable legal authority that effectively stir up public fear and act as a roadblock to project development?”
The chilling effect of the threat of a preemptive veto using a hypothetical scenario developed by the EPA has also prompted criticism and many questions from lawmakers in Washington, and at least three committees are closely examining the circumstances surrounding the DBBWA. In addition to this criticism, Alaska’s senior Senator Lisa Murkowski, who leads Republicans on both the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee and the Interior and Environment Appropriations Subcommittee, has criticized the agency for choosing to “evaluate a hypothetical mine that was basically designed to violate modern environmental standards” and produce “a work of fiction rather than sound science.” U.S. Sen. David Vitter (R-La.), the top Republican on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, joined with Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) to call on the EPA to “disavow this unjustified power grab and instead allow the permitting process designed by Congress to move forward.”
In the U.S. House of Representatives, the Oversight and Government Reform Committee has said the EPA is using an “unprecedented and legally questionable interpretation” of the Clean Water Act, and the Science, Space and Technology Committee has said it is “difficult to view [the DBBWA] as anything other than an attempt by EPA to create additional unnecessary regulatory hurdles,” and warned that “EPA should not stack the deck in one party’s favor.”