A congressional subcommittee chairman is asking tough questions about the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's draft "watershed assessment" of the Bristol Bay region, in which the agency attempts to document possible impacts of a large mine in the region.
Rep. Paul Broun, chairman of the House Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight, a part of the Committee on Science, Space and Technology, wrote to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson Nov. 29 expressing concerns about the assessment, which was recently critiqued by an independent review panel of 12 scientists convened by the agency.
The federal Clean Water Act does not require EPA to do an assessment before applications for projects are made, Broun said. In this case, EPA had been asked by Bristol Bay region residents to initiate a process where the agency can prohibit mining.
EPA did not do this and chose to do the assessment instead, Broun noted in the letter. However, the purpose of the assessment is unclear, he said.
"I am troubled by EPA's vagueness in explaining the purpose of the (assessment) particularly since it appears as though the agency is positioning itself to use the document in any manner it sees fit in the future," Broun said in the letter.
EPA Region 10 officials were not available to comment on Broun's letter.
The congressman also complained that EPA had not responded to questions on how much the agency had spent in preparing the assessment.
"I do not understand the reason for spending scarce federal dollars on a document that the agency is unable to rationalize when it could, and should, wait for a real mine application, and then pursue the clearly defined state and federal process, which also involves other agencies such as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers," Broun wrote.
"It is difficult to view this draft watershed assessment as anything other than an attempt by EPA to create additional and unnecessary regulatory hurdles."
Broun also expressed concern that the assessment uses a hypothetical mine scenario that has no connection to any mine application.
EPA was also criticized for not being clear on what its next steps are. The agency has received reports from scientists on the independent review panel, many of which are critical of the assessment, and now has announced that it will convene a second review panel, Broun wote.
Broun wrote that any future version of the assessment will suffer the same "fundamental flaw" of lacking an actual mine design as did the original assessment.
The EPA has also not said when the second review panel will be convened or when the final watershed assessment will be completed, Broun complained.