The idea of pre-emptively vetoing the Pebble Mine project in Bristol Bay, Alaska may have come from the Environmental Protection Agency itself.
The agency claimed that native Alaskan tribes called on them to launch a study into the effects of large-scale mining in Bristol Bay. But an article published by The Redoubt last month — which has now come to Congress’ attention — suggested former EPA staffer Phil North may have urged the use of a Clean Water Act veto to prevent the mining project from even beginning.
“North advocated for a comprehensive approach to protection of the area, rather than mine by mine,” The Redoubt reported. “The more he studied the area, the more he thought EPA should utilize its authority under section 404(c) of the Clean Water Act to limit or prevent mining activities in the Bristol Bay area.”
“It really takes an exceptional situation for it to be used,” North told The Redoubt. “But when I started talking about it with people, almost everybody said, ‘If there’s any place this should be done, it’s Bristol Bay,’ because there’s no place on Earth like Bristol Bay. It really is the last of the great places for salmon.”
The House Oversight Committee is now launching a probe into the matter, asking the EPA and North for more information.
“Due to a recently published newspaper interview with Phil North, a staff member in the Alaska Operations Office of EPA Region 10, more questions have been raised concerning EPA’s decision to invoke a … veto for the Pebble Mine,” wrote California Republican Rep. Darrell Issa and Ohio Republican Rep. Jim Jordan in their letter to EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy.
Issa and Jordan added that “the article appears to assert that Mr. North was the originator of the idea to use a prospective veto for the potential mine.”
The Pebble Mine has been the focal point of a battle over whether or not the EPA has the legal authority to use the Clean Water Act to veto a mining project before any actual plans for the project have been put forward.
“Regardless of where the idea began, the concern is that this is precedent setting and it interferes with the state’s rights to make decisions,” Robert Dillon, Republican spokesman for the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which is chaired by Alaskan Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski, told The Daily Caller News Foundation. Dillon added that the EPA could use this authority to stymie other mining projects across the country.
“There is the process in place that allows the EPA to have a voice,” he said. “This is an extra-legal procedure.”
However, the EPA and environmentalists argue that the agency has the power to veto a Clean Water Act Permit.
“The Clean Water Act Section 404(c) is very clear,” North said. “It says that EPA can restrict the designation of a site as a discharge point at any time if the administrator determines that there will be an unacceptable adverse effect. So I don’t think there’s any question EPA would prevail.”
The EPA’s most recent draft assessment of the mine said it would impact surrounding wetlands and salmon habitats, but the agency has yet to evaluate an actual mining plan, which has been heavily criticized.
“[F]rankly I believe that there are some within the EPA that like to use this watershed assessment as a tool to create fear or anxiety over the project,” Abraham Williams, president of the pro-development Nuna Resources, told TheDCNF. “We’ve been told that the EPA is going to use the best possible science to judge the risks of this particular project. I have reservations about that. I do not know if it is just lip service or if it is actual fact that they are going to use science that we need in order to judge a project like this.”
Senate Republicans have also criticized the EPA’s actions regarding Pebble Mine, pointing out that the agency has spent $2.4 million in tax dollars on external costs related to the mining study.
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