Energy & Environment

EPA could thwart mineral mother lode and sets dangerous precedent

EPA could thwart mineral mother lode and sets dangerous precedent
Pebble mine project test drilling in the Bristol Bay region of Alaska near the village of Iliamma, Alaska.

The Environmental Protection Agency is employing a disturbing strategy to evaluate a major new mine project by passing judgment on whether it will damage the environment before the company even determines how the venture will work.

The Pebble Limited Partnership wants to mine a deposit in southwest Alaska that holds one of the largest concentrations of copper, gold and molybdenum in the world—at least 80 billion pounds of copper, 100 million ounces of gold, and five billion pounds of molybdenum.

The mother lode of minerals is estimated to be worth $200 billion to $500 billion. Copper is a mineral considered critical to the nation’s economy and is used in computers; molybdenum is used in steel production.

While the unelected bureaucracy of the EPA is trying to stall or block the mining of critical elements, which the U.S. mostly imports from China, Congress passed legislation last week to speed up the mine permit approval process from five years to less than two years in order to advance U.S. self-reliance in obtaining those minerals.

Airlifting outhouses

Pebble has been conducting its own environmental studies for five years and has spent more than $100 million to monitor water, soil and wildlife. While the studies are under way, Pebble removes all of the human waste from the study site by helicopter—including the outhouses, which along with other trash are airlifted to Anchorage—so mine employees don’t add an extra burden to the local treatment facility.

Researchers hired by Pebble have donned dry suits to snorkel through the arctic streams to study spawning habitat and count fish, adding some 7,000 pages of investigative work to another 20,000 pages of environmental reviews the mine company has so far produced.

“It’s one of the most comprehensive environmental studies of a mine project in Alaska, and probably nationwide,” said Mike Heatwole, vice president of public affairs for Pebble.

The problem is that the studies have not been completed or analyzed, and the actual mine plan has not been finalized.

But that hasn’t stopped the EPA from jumping the gun to write its own assessment of the mining operation’s effects on the surrounding 20,000 square mile area and on the salmon population and other species in Bristol Bay—120 miles away from the proposed mining operation site.

The EPA is collecting public comments on their draft report until July 23 and will then submit it for a peer review process in August. If the EPA determines that mining operations are a risk to the water supply, it can use its authority under the Clean Water Act to shut down the mine before its final conception is submitted to the State of Alaska for approval.

Pebble officials say the EPA’s preemptive actions set a dangerous precedent.

“What’s really a concern to us is that the EPA has never stepped into this kind of preemptive space … before we’ve even defined development scenarios for the mine,” Heatwole said. “The EPA is being asked by environmentalists and a number of native Alaskan tribes to potentially take action against us before we have even defined our project and submitted an application.”

Pebble officials say they expect the project to employ 4,000 construction workers over the next four years, plus create another 1,000 jobs for year-round mine operations.

Alaska questions EPA actions

In a series of letters between the EPA, Alaska Attorney General Michael Geraghty, Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell and members of Congress that were obtained by Human Events, the legality of the EPA’s actions have been questioned and condemned.

“EPA has shared little information about its purported legal authority to conduct the watershed assessment,” the attorney general said in a March 9 letter.

The EPA says in its response to the attorney general that its assessment will look at the potential impacts of hypothetical mining alternatives, which the attorney general countered is in conflict with several laws, including the Alaska Statehood Act, Clean Water Act, and National Environmental Policy Act.

“The state selected lands with natural resource potential to provide for the economic welfare of the residents of Alaska,” Geraghty said. “A premature decision could thwart those objectives, as established by both Congress in the Alaska Statehood Act and the Alaska Legislature in a myriad of state laws.”

Dennis McLerran, EPA Region 10 administrator, responded on April 5: “EPA has not initiated any regulatory action under (the Clean Water Act), or any authority. Many of your legal concerns would only be relevant and can only be addressed in the context of a specific regulatory action. Should the EPA move forward with a (Clean Water) action, we will address your legal concerns at that time.”

Sen. Lisa Murkowski is not taking a position on the mine until a proposal is actually submitted, but her spokesman Robert Dillon said there are serious concerns about the EPA’s interference.

“Will this preempt all mines, regardless of its size or scope? It’s turned the entire process on its head and raised a lot of questions,” Dillon said. “We keep getting told to trust the EPA, but there’s not a lot of trust of the EPA in Alaska.”

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