Senate appropriators side with EPA in Pebble fight

By Ariel Wittenberg, Dylan Brown | 09/27/2019 07:04 AM EDT

The Senate Appropriations Committee is giving EPA permission to veto a permit for the contentious Pebble mine in Alaska’s Bristol Bay if it is not satisfied with the Army Corps of Engineers’ environmental review.

The Senate Appropriations Committee is giving EPA permission to veto a permit for the contentious Pebble mine in Alaska’s Bristol Bay if it is not satisfied with the Army Corps of Engineers’ environmental review.

The committee report accompanying the Interior-EPA appropriations bill, which the panel approved yesterday, contains language regarding the "protection of resources in Bristol Bay, Alaska."

In it, the committee states that if federal agencies like EPA, the Department of the Interior or NOAA Fisheries "are not satisfied with the Army Corps’ analysis of the project, the agencies are encouraged to exercise their discretionary authorities, which include EPA’s enforcement authority under the Clean Water Act, at an appropriate time in the permitting process to ensure the full protection of the region."


The provision, written by Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), chairwoman of the Interior and Environment Appropriations Subcommittee, also addresses concerns from all three federal agencies that the Army Corps’ draft environmental impact statement on Pebble does not include enough data to determine whether the massive copper and gold mine venture would impact salmon or their habitat.

"Sound science must guide federal decision making and all gaps and deficiencies identified in comments from Federal agencies and other stakeholders, including Alaska Natives, must be fully addressed, even if that requires additional scientific study, data collection, and more comprehensive analysis of the project’s potential impacts," the report says.

While Interior has called for a supplemental environmental review of the project, officials at the Army Corps Alaska District responsible for reviewing Pebble’s permit application have said that they do not see a need to produce such a supplemental even though the company changed its mine plan after the draft review was completed (Greenwire, Sept. 18).

Murkowski told E&E News last week she was concerned by those comments, saying, "It didn’t appear that they were giving the weight and credence to the issues that had been outlined by the EPA in their comment."

She added, "And they need to take them seriously. We expect them to" (Greenwire, Sept. 19).

Until recently, Murkowski has walked a fine line on the Pebble mine, never advocating for or against the project but instead asking for a fair "process" for it.

EPA came under fire during the Obama administration for proposing to limit mining in Bristol Bay as a means to protect the salmon habitat there, which would have prevented Pebble from moving forward.

The mining company sued, saying EPA could not preemptively veto a project and had to wait until after the permitting process.

Former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt first revoked the proposed veto and then reinstituted it in 2017 after Pebble filed its Clean Water Act permit application with the Army Corps.

While EPA has expressed significant concerns with the Corps’ permit review, it formally quashed the potential veto in July (E&E News PM, July 30).

The agency has not ruled out proposing an additional veto but has merely said that the veto proposed in 2014 was based on "outdated" hypothetical mine scenarios.

Language in the Appropriations Committee report emphasizes that EPA could use its Clean Water Act veto power only at "an appropriate time in the permitting process," which presumably would mean once the Army Corps review is complete.

"Adverse impacts to Alaska’s world-class salmon fishery and to the ecosystem of Bristol Bay, Alaska, are unacceptable," the committee wrote.

Pebble LP, the mining company behind the project, said it has been responding to requests for information from the Army Corps based on comments from federal and state agencies. In an email, Pebble spokesman Mike Heatwole said the company believes the Army Corps will address all concerns in the final EIS.

"Our technical information is sound, defensible, and appropriate," he said. "We can responsibly develop a mine and not harm the fishery. Frankly, it is in our interest to have a thorough EIS."

Bristol Bay resident and commercial fisherman Robin Samuelsen argued that Murkowski’s language should send the Army Corps "back to the drawing board."

"Decisions on something as important as the future of the world’s greatest salmon fishery should be done through an open, fair and scientific process — not a 10-minute conversation on Air Force One," he said, a reference to Alaska Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s recent conversations with President Trump about mining (Greenwire, Aug. 28).

The House version of the Interior-EPA spending bill includes an amendment meant to block Pebble.

Reporter Kevin Bogardus contributed.