House Republicans step up pressure on EPA over controversial Alaska mine assessment

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Michael Bastasch Contributor
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House Republicans have stepped up their pressure against the EPA over the agency’s perceived attempt to preemptively stop mining operations from occurring in Bristol Bay, Alaska.

On Thursday, Georgia Republican Rep. Paul Broun sent a letter to EPA chief administrator Lisa Jackson, questioning the EPA’s watershed assessment of a hypothetical mine in Bristol Bay and an accompanying peer-reviewed report.

Broun expressed concerns about the EPA attempting to create another avenue to block mining operations.

“It doesn’t make sense,” reads the letter by Broun. “During these trying fiscal times, the EPA is spending an undisclosed sum of money on a report that is needlessly based on a hypothetical mine scenario. Regardless of how EPA responds to the issues raised by the peer reviewers in their report, unless EPA waits for an actual, real-world mine application for the Bristol Bay area, all future assessments will suffer from the same fundamental flaw.”

“Unfortunately, it appears as though EPA is happy to continue spending scarce resources on an assessment of questionable value, all in order to create additional, unnecessary, and duplicative regulatory burdens,” Broun concluded.

The EPA released its draft watershed assessment of large-scale mining by Pebble LP at Bristol Bay — potentially one of the largest copper and gold mines in the world — in May, expressing concerns over the impact the mine would have on local salmon habitats and surrounding wetlands.

The assessment did not evaluate any actual plans for the Pebble Mine, as none have been put forward, but looked at a hypothetical mine.

“To be stopped before the process begins and subject it to a hypothetical is a new wrinkle, and that can chill capital, that can chill investment, and the jobs, in this particular economy, that we want to see,” said Dan McGroarty, president of the nonpartisan American Resources Policy Network.

Under the Clean Water Act, the EPA can revoke Section 404 mining permits if there are “unacceptable adverse impacts on municipal water supplies, shellfish beds and fishery areas, wildlife, or recreational areas.”

However, the EPA has never blocked a mining project after a preliminary watershed assessment was completed, and companies behind the Pebble mining project worry that doing so would make it easier for environmental groups to stop other projects.

“It’s going to have a very negative effect on the manufacturing process in the U.S.,” he said, adding that more than $220 billion in investments could be affected. “The EPA is flexing its administrative muscle and seeing how far forward it can reach and how far after the fact can it reach.”

Independent scientists who reviewed the assessment as part of the peer review process also expressed their concerns over the hypothetical mine used by the EPA.

“Although interesting, the potential reality of the assessment is somewhat questionable,” said  Dr. William Stubblefield, one of the scientists who reviewed the assessment. “It is also unclear why EPA undertook this evaluation, given that a more realistic assessment could probably have been conducted once an actual mine was proposed and greater detail about operational parameters available.”

Republicans on the House oversight committee are looking at possible hearings over the EPA’s actions, as well.

“As you know, this was a very long development in which huge investment has been made, and a proactive bypass of the ordinary [permitting] process would be inappropriate,” said committee chairman Darrell Issa, a California Republican, in an interview with E&E News.

In September, the committee asked the EPA for more documents related to the watershed assessment peer review.

“We’re going to have an appropriate hearing along with resources on that to make it clear that we support the historic and ordinary process, and not pre-deciding it, particularly after so much time has been invested in qualifying this property,” Issa added.

On the Senate side, Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski has also weighed in on the issue.

“I’ve always believed that this assessment was seriously flawed. I appreciate the work done by the reviewers, but unless the EPA fixes the fundamental flaw of evaluating an unrealistic, straw-man argument instead of waiting for an actual application to be submitted, problems will remain,” Murkowski said in a statement earlier this month.

“Alaskans deserve a fair and unbiased environmental review of the Pebble project once a project description has been submitted. A preemptive veto by the EPA would make no more sense than a preemptive approval,” she added.

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