By M.D. Kittle | Watchdog.org
Billed as ground zero of one of the nation’s largest conservation battles, the Bristol Bay watershed in southwest Alaska has become the concern of armies of people.
Hundreds of thousands from parts far and wide have made their voices heard on a controversial mine proposal that would open up one of the largest deposits of copper, gold and molybdenum in the United States.
And these armies have offered their take on an equally controversial Environmental Protection Agency revised draft assessment of a large-scale mine project in the region – a study that predicts dire consequences for the Bristol Bay area’s rich supply of sockeye salmon and the fishing industry it serves. That study has been criticized by peer reviewers for unrealistic assumptions in an EPA vision of a mine that its developers have yet to define.
Joining a chorus of mine supporters, at least the list of critics of what has been described as a flawed assessment process, is one of Alaska’s largest labor unions.
In comments to the EPA, the Laborers’ International Union of North America urged the agency to “cease the ongoing Bristol Bay Watershed assessment and reject any of the current findings.”
“The current assessment undermines the existing process via a preemptive decision based on a hypothetical mine,” LIUNA wrote. “Every project should have an opportunity to be reviewed under the existing permit process.”
William Stubblefield, a professor at Oregon State University’s Department of Molecular and Environmental Toxicology, was one of several reviewers who knocked EPA’s early assessment as dubious.
“Unfortunately, because of the hypothetical nature of the approach employed, the uncertainty associated with the assessment…the utility of the assessment, is questionable.”
Laborers’ International Union further stated that if the project is determined to be detrimental to the environment it wouldn’t advance under EPA standards. But Pebble Limited Partnership, the development initiative of London-based Anglo American and British Columbia’s Northern Dynasty Minerals, should have the opportunity to present its case, the labor organization wrote.
“The process will not permit one industry or resource to advance at the expense of another. The EPA should recognize this process just as the applicants are required to as well,” LUNA stated in its comments to EPA.
Calling on Obama
Environmentalist and conservation organizations like the Natural Resources Defense Council and Trout Unlimited are asking the federal government to use a special provision of the federal Clean Water Act – known as Section 404 – to pre-emptively veto the project before its developers submit a plan.
“From Trout Unlimited’s perspective, this is the wrong mine in the wrong place.”
A group of five West Coast Democratic U.S. senators earlier sent a letter to the president in June asking him to “act to protect Bristol Bay from any large-scale mining that would threaten our Nation’s vibrant fishing economy.”
Asked again whether it would invoke the Clean Water Act provision to preemptively kill the Pebble Mine project, an EPA official told Watchdog that the agency is not in the regulatory process right now.
The public comment period on the revised assessment closed on Sunday. As of Monday afternoon, EPA had taken nearly 622,000 comments on the assessment – and the Pebble Mine concept by extension.
Mine opponents declared a victory Monday, asserting that 360,000 of the preliminary 527,192 comment submissions were in opposition of the open-pit mine, about 68 percent, according to a release sent from the Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association.
The group says 60 percent of Alaskans who commented said they support the EPA assessment, and overall the campaign has picked up mass support. Conversely, the environmentalists claim, the bulk of comments opposing the EPA’s assessment came from Resourceful Earth, a project of the conservative think tank Competitive Enterprise Institute.
True. The EPA comment case docket shows several entries noted “Mass Comment Campaign sponsored by Resourceful Earth.” But the mine opponents fail to note those form letters contain signatures of tens of thousands of people who either support the mine proposal or who don’t support any EPA move to veto the proposal before it is presented.
Also not noted are the fiscal resources and organizational efforts of Alaska’s fishing industry, which has taken a forceful position against the Pebble Mine proposal. Mine opponents point to a University of Alaska Institute of Social and Economic Research study that estimates the value of commercial fishing activities in the Bristol Bay region account for $1.5 billion in output value, including $500 million in direct income.
There’s a lot here to protect.
Trout Unlimited claims the public’s sentiments are clear, that the 14,000 American jobs supported by Bristol Bay and its fishing industry are more precious to Americans than a “massive open-pit gold and copper mine.”
Williams disputes the criticism about EPA’s hypothetical mine in its assessment. EPA, she noted, derives its conceptual mine from details released publicly at the Alaska Department of Natural Resources and the federal Securities and Exchange Commission.
“The science is in,” she said.
But the science is disputed, and it could shape an EPA decision that could have a wider impact on U.S. business.
‘Hear the companies out’
John Shively, CEO of the Pebble Partnership, noted the national significance of the potential mine, including the creation of some 15,000 long-term jobs.
“If the EPA makes a premature decision to block our project based on a hypothetical scenario, not an exhaustive review of a real permit application, it would set a terrible precedent and put a huge cloud of uncertainty over thousands of construction projects nationwide,” Shively said in a statement.
Maurice Daniel, executive director of Mined in America, an advocacy group that supports U.S. mining expansion for economic and national security reasons, is a Democrat who worked for vice president and environmentalist icon Al Gore and later for Democrats on Capitol Hill.
Beyond the pros and cons of the proposed mine, Daniel said, is the sacrosanct issue of due process.
“A process was established with the faith and trust of the American public,” he told Watchdog. “If you change the process in the middle of the game…you risk contaminating the integrity of the process.”
Daniel said Mined in America has heard from organized labor, and there is growing support for the project and the higher-paying jobs it promises among unions.
“Make no mistake, this is about jobs,” he said, adding that organized labor, which has stood with environmental causes in the Democratic Party, gets the significance of what a mine could mean to Alaska’s economy.
It seems at least a portion of organized labor stands with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other business advocacy groups in demanding that the EPA see a mine proposal before it decides on its fate.
“We will review the comments and provide a response to the comments document when we issue the final assessment. EPA intends to issue the final Bristol Bay assessment in 2013,” the EPA said in a statement to Watchdog.
The Washington Post editorial board recently weighed in, noting the environmental concerns raised in the EPA assessment, while calling on a fair hearing of the proposal.
“All (the mine developers) want, they say, is a fair and thorough evaluation of their claims. That is reasonable,” the editorial asserts. “If complete federal reviews find that the companies can’t protect the fishery, regulators can reject the project. But, given the potential economic value of the mine, they should hear the companies out.”
M.D. Kittle is bureau chief of Wisconsin Reporter. Contact him at [email protected]