Bristol Bay:

NRDC's Reynolds discusses lobbying battle following release of EPA's watershed assessment

With U.S. EPA completing its final assessment of large-scale mining's impacts on the Bristol Bay watershed, lobbying efforts surrounding the Pebble mine's future are intensifying in Washington. During today's OnPoint, Joel Reynolds, Western director at the Natural Resources Defense Council, discusses the likelihood EPA will pre-emptively veto the mine and the role of politics in the final decision.

Transcript

Monica Trauzzi: Hello and welcome to OnPoint. I'm Monica Trauzzi. With me today is Joel Reynolds, Western director at the Natural Resources Defense Council. Joel, thanks for coming back on the show.

Joel Reynolds: My pleasure.

Monica Trauzzi: Joel, last month the EPA completed its final assessment of the Bristol Bay watershed finding, risks to salmon and Alaska Native culture resulting from large-scale mining. The story on the Pebble mine is not over yet though with this assessment. There's heavy lobbying happening right now here in Washington. Considering that a formal application has yet to be filed by Pebble, what's the current state of play as you see it?

Joel Reynolds: You're absolutely right it's not over. There have been a number of very significant developments over the last 12 months, none of them good for the project. For example, the No. 1 financial partner in the project walked away in September, didn't even sell, just walked away from about $540 million spent, that was Anglo American. Rio Tinto, which owns some 19 percent of the remaining partner, announced in December that it was considering divesting from the project. But Northern Dynasty Minerals, the remaining company, has made it very clear it's not giving up. It's even predicted that it could file permanent applications in 2014. So there's no final outcome, and it's absolutely critical therefore that EPA continue to move forward now that it's completed the watershed assessment and look at regulating this project.

Monica Trauzzi: Pebble is trying to find another partner for the project right now. There's money to be made if this project actually gets built. Do you think investors will ultimately step in?

Joel Reynolds: You know I'm very skeptical of that given the investors that have already walked away. But you know it depends on whether there's a company out there that is willing to, you know, dig in for a very long fight, because that's clearly what they'd have to buy into here. This project has the most diverse and sustained coalition of opposition of just about any mining company in the world or mining project in the world. It's not about mining. A lot of these stakeholders actually support mining, other mines in Alaska in fact. The problem here is that this is the wrong mine in the wrong place; it's at the headwaters of the greatest wild salmon fishery in the world.

Monica Trauzzi: So you're meeting with administration officials and members of Commerce while you're in D.C. What's the message that you're hoping to deliver?

Joel Reynolds: The message is that we need EPA to act now. It has now completed the scientific basis to understand what the impacts of large-scale mining would be in the Bristol Bay watershed, and the picture is not pretty. They concluded that even if this mine were to operate flawlessly, which no mine ever does, the impacts would be significant, irreparable and unmitigable. So it's clear that they have the factual basis. They also have the legal basis under the Clean Water Act; Section 404(c) gives them the right to come in once the regulatory threshold is met and essentially prohibit, restrict or withdraw any permit that's been granted for a project.

Monica Trauzzi: That would be a pre-emptive decision though on EPA, so how significant would the precedent be then if they were actually to do that before Pebble has filed an application?

Joel Reynolds: The statute is quite clear that the administrator has the authority whenever he or she determines that the standard has been met. I don't think there's ever been any case clearer than this one for use of that 404(c) authority, and the watershed assessment provides a very solid, factual foundation for moving forward. EPA spent three years. It was peer-reviewed twice. It's very solid science, and ultimately they concluded that this project has the potential to cause catastrophic damage to the region, including the fishery.

Monica Trauzzi: And do you think that the agency would be willing to act that aggressively to pre-emptively veto the project?

Joel Reynolds: That's the $64,000 question. We don't know the answer to that. We do know that EPA has done thus far a very careful, very solid job of scientific work, and the extent of public participation has been virtually unprecedented. As I said there were two peer reviews that have been done on this. So they have laid the groundwork to move forward, and they've been asked to move forward by the people who live there, who overwhelmingly oppose this project and want EPA to come in and protect the Bristol Bay fishery.

Monica Trauzzi: Alaska Sen. Murkowski has said that mining is an important part of her state's economy and she continues to believe that Alaska's resources can be developed responsibly for the benefit of all. Is there a path forward for developing this mine in an economically and environmentally responsible way?

Joel Reynolds: No, there is not. I don't think there's anything that could be done to this project given its scale and location that would eliminate the risk associated with it, and that's the fundamental problem. There are a lot of mines in Alaska, there have been and there will be in the future. But if you took every single hardrock mine that's ever been developed in the state and you put it in the pit that's proposed for the Pebble mine, it would cover 25 percent of the pit. If you take that scale and you place that mining project within the headwaters of a salmon fishery that produces 30 [million]-50 million wild salmon every year, $1.5 billion in income, 14,000 jobs, you very quickly determine that that's a bad idea, and that's what the people of Bristol Bay have made very, very clear.

Monica Trauzzi: But then does the state, does Alaska take an economic hit if the project isn't built because of the economic benefits of moving forward with the mine?

Joel Reynolds: No, you know I think it's quite the opposite. I think the state of Alaska is going to take an economic hit the longer the Pebble mine hangs in the balance, because it's the 800-pound gorilla in the Bristol Bay watershed. Everybody's waiting to see what's going to happen with the Pebble mine. And if it goes forward it will contaminate this incredibly productive economic engine, which is the fisheries. If it goes away then sustainable development of some kind can actually move forward. That's I think in the economic interest of the state of Alaska, certainly the people who live there and in my judgment even in the interest of the mining industry, because the fact is the Pebble mine is giving the mining industry a bad name.

Monica Trauzzi: Pebble has brought on a Washington-based lobbyist as CEO. Does his hiring suggest that this is all about politics now?

Joel Reynolds: I think if I were to read the tea leaves of that, he's somebody that has a lot of regulatory experience, they may be hoping that he can somehow get a permit application over the transom. But honestly, in the absence of finding some new financial partner, I think that's going to be very, very difficult. So it's not clear to me exactly what he's going to be able to do for them. But our message very clearly is to EPA, and that is you've done an outstanding job on the watershed assessment, now we need you to use your authority to protect Bristol Bay.

Monica Trauzzi: All right, we're going to end it right there. Thank you for coming on the show.

Joel Reynolds: My pleasure.

Monica Trauzzi: And thanks for watching. We'll see you back here tomorrow.

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