Paul Jenkins: EPA Bristol Bay study is suspect in more ways than one

CommentAugust 24, 2013 

If you thought the Environmental Protection Agency was a power-mad, greenie-driven federal behemoth intent on preemptively blocking development of the Pebble prospect on state land at any cost, well, hang on, it turns out you are not alone.

The supposedly neutral agency pooh-poohs accusations of bias against the Pebble Limited Partnership or the proposed project. The EPA's story is that it was asked by Alaska Native tribes and others to study the salmon-rich Bristol Bay watershed because of concerns about the potential effects of large-scale mining.

The planned mine, indeed, would be huge, producing 80.6 billion pounds of copper, 107.4 million ounces of gold and 5.6 billion pounds of molybdenum. Proponents say it would be an economic boon. Opponents fret it could devastate the region's world-class salmon fishery.

Despite agency assurances to the contrary, many believe the fix is in, that the EPA wants to flex its rarely used regulatory muscle under section 404(c) of the Clean Water Act to block Pebble, some 200 miles southwest of Anchorage -- even before the first application is filed. The agency has used 404(c) only 13 times in four decades.

Now, many Pebble proponents wonder whether they have the true story, whether the move to block the project originated within the agency, prompted by one of its own, whether the-Natives-asked-us story is a cover.

Released in May 2012, the EPA's year-long "Assessment of Potential Mining Impacts on Salmon Ecosystems of Bristol Bay, Alaska" concentrated on the Nushagak and Kvichak rivers' watersheds. That's 20,000 square miles, the size of Rhode Island, Delaware, Connecticut and New Jersey with an extra Rhode Island or so left over.

Researchers used antiquated mining technology and a mythical mine that could not be permitted in Alaska to conclude a large-scale mine in the region could wipe out the planet and kill all the fish -- or maybe not.

The hurried, botched assessment failed to pass muster with the EPA's own peer review panel. A revision was conjured up, public comment taken and the results are expected by year's end. Northern Dynasty Minerals Ltd., a Pebble partner, called the revised draft and the process to complete it "biased, manipulative and contrary to EPA's own guidelines."

The missteps should make anybody nervous but then there was this headline last month in Soldotna's Redoubt Reporter: "Full Phil -- EPA's North sets sail after eventful career helping launch Bristol Bay-Pebble Mine assessment."

The story details Phil North's retirement from the EPA after 20-plus years, first as mining inspector and then ecologist in Anchorage and Kenai; how he noticed Alaska resource management tipping toward development; how North came to know Bristol Bay.

"And why, to his mind, it needs protection beyond what the companies and state of Alaska would afford," the story says. "To the point of pulling the EPA's potent and rarely used trump card -- a 404(c) designation under the federal Clean Water Act, which could limit mining in the area before a specific proposal is even submitted."

" 'It really takes an exceptional situation for it to be used," North is quoted as saying, '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.' "

What piqued the interest of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform -- looking hard at the Bristol Bay overview -- is that North, as the Redoubt reported, co-authored the assessment's mining scenario.

M.D. Kittle, a reporter for Wisconsinreporter.org, affiliated with Watchdog.org and the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, has reported extensively on North and the Pebble controversy.

The EPA has turned over 35,000 pages of documents, and, "The committee," Kittle reported in the Washington Examiner, "has been seeking a transcribed interview with a recently retired EPA employee -- reportedly North -- regarding his work on the environmental assessment."

It appears the agency is dragging its feet.

In the end, we have an EPA guy who advocates the 404(c) bomb also helping design the controversial assessment's iffy mining scenario. No wonder Pebble proponents are skittish.

Perhaps when recently confirmed Environmental Protection Agency chief Gina McCarthy arrives in Alaska this week to visit the proposed Pebble Mine site she will assure Alaskans the deck is not stacked; that Pebble will get a fair, impartial hearing.

Nowadays, especially with the Obama administration, that is almost too much to hope for.


Paul Jenkins is editor of the AnchorageDailyPlanet.com.

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