By M.D. Kittle | Wisconsin Reporter
MADISON – The Bristol Bay region in Southwest Alaska is wild country, wide open, marked by sweeping stretches of wind-blistered tundra, pocketed by wetlands and scissored with rivers pushing into the bay’s pristine, cobalt waters.
This is the land of the gray wolf, the bald eagle, the grizzly bear.
It is the definition of remote.
“It’s very barren, but that barrenness offers immense beauty,” Abe Williams, 41 and born and raised in Southwest Alaska, told Wisconsin Reporter via phone. “The communities are stretched out, in many cases by great distances. There are no roads connecting these communities in most places.”
There’s not much opportunity in hub towns like Naknek, with an economy bound by the fishing industry – Bristol Bay boasts nearly half of the world’s sockeye population.
Williams said many of the people he grew up with are gone, having moved on to jobs more stable than the spring-to-summer salmon run can provide. Many of those who remain depend on government assistance to survive.
But there’s an estimated $400 billion-plus in metals – a lot of it copper – hidden in the hills and valleys between the Nushagak and Kvichak rivers. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates the Pebble Project, already in the advanced exploration stage, contains some 11 billion metric tons of copper, gold, molybdenum and porphyry, which would make it the largest mine of its kind in North America.
As the project’s mining interests butt heads with regulators, the debate may offer valuable lessons to Wisconsin, where lawmakers propose to streamline the permitting process for new mines. The bill would ease the way for a $1.5 billion iron ore mine in northwest Wisconsin, creating, according to project backers, hundreds of mining jobs and thousands more ancillary positions.
It also would prevent, at least at the state level, the type of regulatory overreach the Pebble Partnership says it is seeing in the Bristol Bay region.
Pebble, a 50-50 partnership between a subsidiary of Anglo American and Northern Dynasty Minerals, has spent the past five years exploring the possibility of developing open-pit and underground mines at the east and west ends of the deposit. The company claims to have spent more than $120 million on environmental and socioeconomic studies.
Williams, who heads up Nuna Resources, the nonprofit educational organization funded by the two companies, contends the EPA is moving to invoke a rule that could preemptively kill development before it gets off the drawing board. The EPA denies the charges, saying its Assessment of Potential Mining Impacts, read by mine supporters as a damning document, is not a precursor to regulatory action.
Williams is worried.
He, like fellow supporters of a mine development in the region, believes the EPA could be planning to invoke Section 404(c), known as the “Veto Act” in the Clean Water Act. It’s a wordy EPA regulation that authorizes the agency to “prohibit, restrict, or deny the discharge of dredged or fill material at defined sites in waters of the United States (including wetlands)” whenever it determines that fisheries, wildlife, municipal water supplies or recreational areas would be adversely affected.
Williams fears the EPA will deny Pebble Partnership the right to a hearing before the company has an opportunity to submit a plan.
“We are genuinely worried that the EPA is about to consign our communities to a permanent economic depression by rushing to pre-emptively invoke Section 404(c) of the Clean Water Act before all the facts are known,” Williams wrote in a letter to the EPA. “This is the most important environmental and economic decision in the history of our region, and your agency is ignoring the people who stand to be most affected by that decision.”
An official with EPA Region 10, covering the Pacific Northwest, did not want to be identified for this story but said the agency has no intention of taking any regulatory action in the foreseeable future.
The language of Section 404(c) would seem to restrain the EPA from acting outside due process, noting that any restriction must come “after notice and opportunity for public hearing.”
The EPA’s draft Bristol Bay Watershed assessment was released in May, drawing more than 230,000 comments from the region and well beyond.
While the study isn’t designed to be an “in-depth assessment of a specific mine,” it lays out some scary scenarios for the region’s ecological system and the native Alaskan cultures who draw their sustenance from the sockeye and Chinook salmon runs.
Even under the best practices, the EPA draft report found some impact on the fish population, encumbered by blocked streams, reduced stream flows and the necessary removal of wetlands.
Mine failures, involving tailings, or mine waste, would release an estimated 20 percent of waste material into the watershed, the report contends. In many cases, fish would be exposed to acute toxins in the waters, to the detriment of spawning and rearing. There would be a near-complete loss of the fish population, according to the EPA.
And the residual effects of a multi-generational copper mine would be pronounced, the assessment asserts.
“(The) waste would require management for centuries or even in perpetuity,” the report states.
The Pebble Partnership chastised the assessment as “inadequate, rushed and inaccurate,” failing the standards of science and the agency’s own regulations.
Most glaring, according to the company, is the EPA’s use of a “hypothetical mine scenario designed to be as realistic as possible” in its assessment. No mine fitting the scenario would be permitted in the United States, the partnership noted in a statement.
“As a company, we firmly believe that such a determination would need to be based on the same scientific rigor and the same high standards for independent scientific research as the federal agencies would use to grant a mine the various permits required by law,” said John Shively, CEO of the Pebble Partnership, in a written response.
“This assessment does not meet those standards or come anywhere close to doing so,” he wrote. “If a developer attempted to apply for federal permits using a document as flawed as this assessment, the applications would be promptly and justifiably rejected.”
The push back from regulators has been coupled with plenty of opposition on the ground.
Voters in the Bristol Bay region have passed the Save Our Salmon initiative, which would prohibit local officials from issuing permits for mining projects “that would threaten to destroy salmon habitat,” according to the environmental group The Wilderness Society.
“Regional surveys show that more than 80 percent of Bristol Bay residents oppose Pebble and support the Environmental Protection Agency using its Clean Water Act authority to protect Bristol Bay from the proposed Pebble mine,” tribal leaders wrote in an editorial in The Hill.
Opponents include hunting and fishing enthusiasts, the fishing industries and native populations such as the Yupik and Dena’ina, two of the last intact sustainable salmon-based cultures in the world, according to the EPA report.
But much of the opposition comes from well beyond the Bristol Bay region’s borders.
Fran Field, of Sparta, Wis., wrote that the EPA’s findings “show unequivocally that large-scale mining would jeopardize the area’s legendary salmon runs.
“… Please save Bristol Bay by banning large-scale mining, including the Pebble mine,” Field wrote.
That kind of outside input has flooded the debate, drowning out the spirit of due process, mine supporters contend.
Aves Thompson, executive director of the Alaska Trucking Association, urged the EPA not to make any “premature judgments” on the Pebble project until the permitting process is complete.
“Every project, no matter the size or location, should have an opportunity to be reviewed by the process,” Thompson wrote in his comments to the EPA. “In the case of mining, there are more than 60 major permits and hundreds more from local, state, and federal agencies that must be successfully obtained.
“If the process determines a project as designed cannot protect the environment and other resources, it will not advance.”
And that’s a key strategy of project opponents – a slow death by delays, industry officials say.
The United States is second only to Papua New Guinea among mineral-laden nations for permitting delays, according to mineral industry adviser Behre Dolbear’s 2012 “Where Not to Invest” ranking of countries for mining investment.
The average U.S. mine permitting process takes anywhere from seven to 10 years. By contrast, Australia’s permitting process is generally completed within two years.
Wisconsin lawmakers want to make the process less onerous by putting a firm timeline on the state permitting process. A mining bill under consideration this session would have the immediate effect of easing the process for Gogebic Taconite, which wants to extract iron ore from the mine in northwest Wisconsin.
Beyond their environmental concerns, critics of the bill, like Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca, D-Kenosha, argue that even if legislation passes, mining jobs wouldn’t materialize for years because of the federal timelines involved.
Industry officials say that argument underscores the need for regulatory reform.
“Companies just want certainty,” said Dan McGroarty principal of the American Resources Policy Network, a nonprofit think tank of mining experts. “If the permit process reveals a mine project is dangerous and it’s a ‘no,’ we’ll cut our losses and move on.”
He said the anti-mining movement is no longer willing to take chances on due process; it wants to engage in stall tactics and deplete the resources of developers to stop them before they start.
“That’s not a defensible stance to take,” he said. “We should believe in our regulations.”
Abe Williams, the Pebble Project advocate, said resistance has moved from NIMBY – not in my back yard – to BANANA – build absolutely nothing anywhere near anything.
That attitude, Williams asserts, will be the economic death of the wide open region he calls home.
Contact Matt Kittle at [email protected].
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