New EPA chief must end political attacks on Pebble Mine

John MacKinnon Executive Director, Associated General Contractors of Alaska

Not long before U.S. EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson resigned from President Obama’s cabinet, it was revealed she spent years using a secret e-mail account to conduct official business. Under pressure, the agency has started releasing those e-mails, which provide a glimpse into how top officials at the agency worked to outmaneuver lawmakers and the press. But I found one of Jackson’s e-mails particularly astounding and hypocritical, given the agency’s apparent obsession with politics and PR spin.

“The public health and environmental laws that Congress has enacted depend on rigorous adherence to the best available science,” Jackson wrote in a message to the agency’s 17,000 employees. “That is why, when I became Administrator, I pledged to uphold values of scientific integrity every day.” Jackson added that the EPA’s decisions “should be arrived at independently using well-established scientific methods, including peer review, to assure rigor, accuracy and impartiality.”

As a biologist in a much earlier career, I agree completely with these statements. But I found them shocking because under Jackson’s leadership, the EPA has subjected the state of Alaska and the developer of the proposed Pebble copper mine to one of the most unscientific regulatory assaults in the agency’s 43-year history.

In May 2012, the agency published a draft study that claimed large-scale mining activity would harm the salmon populations of Bristol Bay. It contained not one shred of original research, and instead of waiting for the developers to complete an actual permit application for the mine, the EPA simply invented its own hypothetical design. This approach completely ignored modern mining practices, used technologies that have been outdated for more than a century, and borrowed shoddy construction standards from failed mines in other countries like Romania. In other words, in order to conclude that mining activity would harm the environment, the EPA presented a mine that was guaranteed to harm the environment. So much for rigor, accuracy and impartiality.

But don’t take my word for it — listen to some of the experts who served on the peer-review panel for the EPA’s Bristol Bay draft study. The study’s predictions of structural failures were “hogwash,” said University of Idaho professor Charles Slaughter. It is “impossible to know whether the hypothetical mining scenario is realistic,” and its assumptions “completely overlooked” the use of modern environmental controls, said University of British Columbia professor Dirk van Zyl. Geologist Steve Buckley underscored Zyl’s point: “There is no detailed discussion of engineering practices. There is insufficient discussion of any potential mitigation measures and there is a lack of any detailed research into applicable engineering and mitigation methods.” Overall, the panelists concluded, the EPA produced a flawed study that “overemphasizes catastrophic events” and the agency should go back and fix these problems before making any decision about mining activity in Bristol Bay.

Today, environmental groups are desperately lobbying the EPA to simply ignore this scientific criticism and use the flawed study to justify a pre-emptive veto of the Pebble Mine. Frances Beinecke, president of the New York-based Natural Resources Defense Council, claimed the study “provides more than enough information to find with absolute certainty that large-scale mining in the Bristol Bay watershed would pose enormous, irreversible harm.” Since the facts simply don’t support her position, Beinecke goes to Hollywood for help. “The time has come for President Obama to take the next crucial step: To direct his EPA to use its authority under the Clean Water Act to stop the Pebble Mine,” actor Robert Redford wrote in a recent op-ed. Redford doesn’t know or doesn’t care that an unprecedented preemptive veto would hurt the nation, not just Alaska, because it would trigger regulatory chaos for the same permitting program that reviews construction projects worth more than $200 billion annually.

Thankfully, Lisa Jackson is no longer in a position to give the NRDC what it wants by putting politics and the power of celebrity ahead of science. But how will her replacement respond to the demands of environmental activists? Will the next EPA administrator declare support for “rigorous adherence to the best available science,” and really mean it this time? Will they stand up to environmental lobbyists and the administration’s Hollywood supporters? For the sake of the country, I hope the answer is “yes.”

John MacKinnon is the executive director of the Associated General Contractors of Alaska, a trade association representing over 660 business members and the majority of the construction industry in Alaska.