The federal Environmental Protection Agency said Monday that it will review the consequences of large-scale development projects, such as the proposed copper and gold Pebble mine, in the Bristol Bay watershed.
The EPA said it is launching the review in response to petitions last year from several Southwest Alaska tribes, commercial fishing groups and other organizations opposed to Pebble. Those groups are worried about the potential impact of large-scale mining on Bristol Bay's world-class salmon runs.
The EPA, however, did not give the petitioners what they had requested. The agency declined to formally consider blocking mining waste disposal in waterways downstream of the Pebble deposit. The agency said it might -- or might not -- consider taking that step in the future.
"The Bristol Bay watershed is essential to the health, environment and economy of Alaska," said EPA Regional Administrator Dennis McLerran.
"Gathering data and getting public review now, before development occurs, just makes sense. Doing this we can be assured that our future decisions are grounded in the best science and information and in touch with the needs of these communities," McLerran said.
Section 404(c) of the Clean Water Act empowers the EPA to veto the disposal of dredged material or to put fill in waterways like the major rivers downstream from Pebble. The agency has only rarely exercised that authority, invoking it about a dozen times since the Clean Water Act passed in 1972, including only once in the western United States.
EPA can use the veto authority if it decides that waste disposal into a particular waterway will cause too much harm to aquatic life, recreational areas or drinking water. Usually, the agency doesn't launch the process -- which often includes a public hearing -- unless a developer has already applied for permits to build a project. That hasn't happened yet in Pebble's case.
Incensed about the agency's role in some large-scale developments in Alaska, including Conoco Phillips' struggle to expand its Alpine field, U.S. Rep. Don Young has filed legislation this year to revoke EPA's veto authority in the Clean Water Act.
Last year, Gov. Sean Parnell sent a letter to the EPA asking it not to invoke its veto authority. Among Parnell's reasons was that a decision to block permits could undermine the state's land-use authority. The Pebble deposit is located on state land.
At least six Bristol Bay tribal governments asked EPA to begin a public review to consider adding protections for the Bristol Bay watershed under the Clean Water Act. Fishing organizations, an eco-tourism group and Native corporations also joined the petition drive. But two other tribal governments in the area asked the agency to delay any action on the matter until the companies seeking to develop Pebble apply for permits.
The companies are not expected to submit permit applications until later this year or next year.
The reaction from Alaska's Congressional delegation, the Parnell administration, the mining industry and Pebble opponents was mixed.
U.S. Sens. Lisa Murkowski, a Republican, and Mark Begich, a Democrat, praised the EPA for studying the Bristol Bay watershed instead of preemptively blocking the disposal of mining waste in the region.
But Young attacked the EPA, accusing it of "blatantly circumventing" the permit process and said the decision was indicative of "romper-room style" governance by the Obama Administration.
"What will they be reviewing in the absence of a permit application?" Young asked.
Gov. Sean Parnell wants to protect Bristol Bay fisheries under the existing rules and questions the value of the EPA's review, which is still not clearly defined, said his spokeswoman Sharon Leighow.
"It particularly concerns us that EPA is initiating this process before any projects have been proposed," Leighow said.
In contrast, the administrator for the Ekwok Tribal Council, one of the tribal governments that petitioned the EPA, said he's happy with the agency's decision and thinks a study will ultimately prevent mine waste from being disposed into salmon streams.
"We believe once they get their data in, there's no other decision they can make," said Rick King, the Ekwok tribal administrator.
Bob Waldrop, who heads one of the several Alaska commercial fishing groups that petitioned the EPA last year, said he is "pleased but not ecstatic" by the agency's announcement.
Waldrop said he's glad that EPA is now taking a bigger role in reviewing Pebble. He said it was a "very deft and appropriate move" by the agency. Yet it falls several steps short of what his group, the Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association, and others had hoped for, he said.
"There's no decision at the end of this," he said.
John Shively, who heads the Pebble Partnership, the two-company venture hoping to develop the massive mineral prospect, had no outright objections to the EPA review.
Shively said he's glad that the EPA so far has not vetoed future permits in the Bristol Bay region. It isn't correct for EPA to do that before anyone applies for permits, he said
He said the Pebble Partnership will begin releasing some of its scientific studies of the Pebble deposit this year.
Steve Borell, executive director of the Alaska Miners Association, said the EPA's decision not to invoke its veto authority at this time is "good news."
"They haven't shut off (Pebble), so I think the science will speak for itself," he said.
EPA said its scientific review will focus on the Nushagak and Kvichak river drainages, both downstream of the Pebble deposit.
McLerran said the agency will compile a peer-reviewed report on the watersheds that will go out for public comment in six to nine months. A final version of the report will be published in nine months to a year, he said.
Regional and Washington, D.C.-based EPA staff will be involved in the review, he said. At the end of it, the EPA regional office in Seattle "will be charged with making some decisions," he said.
"The petitions are on our mind but we have a lot of options," he said.
In the coming year, the EPA plans to host public meetings and gather information from the mining companies and others who have been studying Pebble.
Find Elizabeth Bluemink online at adn.com/contact/ebluemink or call her at 257-4317.