Hundreds of people filled an Anchorage auditorium on Monday night to give their view of a controversial draft watershed assessment of Bristol Bay and the massive Pebble Project, a document that may help the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency stop the project before permitting even begins.
The state attorney general and the top investigative committee in the U.S. House of Representatives say the EPA's action is potentially illegal. For their part, federal officials said the draft assessment is not a regulatory action, but they say Congress gave the agency the authority under the Clean Water Act to preemptively halt projects that can damage watersheds and fisheries.
The recently released draft assessment found that a large-scale, open-pit copper, gold and molybdenum mine at the headwaters of the two largest watersheds in Bristol Bay would hurt salmon even in an ideal scenario, even if tailings never leaked. An 86-mile road would allow trucks to deliver minerals to Cook Inlet. Pipelines that deliver fuel and water would cross 70 streams.
Even a 24-hour-long leak of acidic tailings waste into rivers could have a devastating effect if it happens at the wrong time, because tens of thousands of sockeye salmon spawn in concentrated areas.
The EPA considers a small leak to be likely during the 25-to-75- year lifespan of a large-scale mine, said Rick Parkin, head of the assessment for the agency.
Less likely -- but more disastrous -- would be an accidental release of just 20 percent of the tailings from behind a dam. Nearly one-third of the Nushagak River salmon run could be destroyed, he said.
The long-running battle over Pebble pits two-world class resources against each other, with fisherman and environmental groups lining up against pro-development forces. Native villages from the region show up on both sides.
Bristol Bay is the world's most valuable wild sockeye salmon fishery and produces about half the world's sockeye, the assessment found. On the other hand, Pebble Partnership owners Northern Dynasty Minerals of Canada and Anglo American of London have said the mine would create more than 1,000 high-wage, full-time jobs for 25 years, as workers process a potential 81 billion pounds of copper, 107 million ounces of gold and 5.6 billion pounds of molybdenum.
The project would be built on state land and could produce more than 11 billion metric tons of ore, making it the biggest mine of its kind in North America, the draft assessment found.
Draft assessment reviews existing studies
The draft assessment came at the request of nine Alaska Native tribes, including many from the region, as well as the regional Bristol Bay Native Corporation. The EPA did no new research, other than interviews with local residents. Instead, it drew on the scientific literature available and plans published by the Pebble Partnership, EPA officials said.
The EPA is considering requests, including from state Attorney General Michael Geraghty, to extend the comment period on the draft assessment from 60 days to 180 days, so it would end Nov. 20 instead of July 23.
The draft assessment is premature and any impacts should not be considered until Pebble Partnership has applied for a permit and submitted a proposal to the state, an official with the state Department of Law said in an email to Alaska Dispatch before the meeting.
"Although we are greatly concerned that there is no legal authority for this assessment, we are evaluating it as thoroughly as possible given the short 60-day review and public comment period," said Ruth Hamilton Heese, senior assistant attorney general.
Dennis McLerran, EPA regional administrator, told Alaska Dispatch that the draft assessment could be used in the permitting process or it could be used under section 404 of the Clean Water Act, which gives EPA ability to preemptively stop projects that would have "unacceptable, adverse" impacts on watersheds.
The EPA "will not address use of its regulatory authority until the assessment becomes final and has made no judgment about whether to use that authority," he added.
The public hearings on the draft assessment began in Seattle last week, irking many Alaskans. But Washington is home to nearly 1,000 commercial fishing permit holders for Bristol Bay, and they take more than $100 million back to Washington with them.
The Anchorage meeting was the second meeting, and the first of seven planned for Alaska. The EPA said it's not looking for opinions on whether the project should happen, but for comments on what items were left out of the assessment and where the agency needs to dig deeper.
At the Wendy Williamson Auditorium Thursday evening, supporters of the project wore bright-green, hand-shaped cards that said "Hands off Alaska!" a reference to the perception that the EPA is meddling in the affairs of the 49th State. One wearer joked that the hand should have been shaped differently: to give EPA the bird.
Opponents of the project wore anti-Pebble-mine stickers. With an estimated 800 people in the auditorium, there were plenty from both sides in the audience. Some 140 signed up to give two minutes' worth of testimony, the maximum allowed for a meeting set to end at 10 p.m. More wanted to sign up, EPA officials said.
Tom Tilden, a Nushagak Bay district fisherman and longtime chief of the Curyung Tribe in Dillingham, told EPA he was glad they stepped in. He once supported the mine, thinking it would mean jobs for residents. But his views changed as he realized it could devastate the fishery.
The draft assessment needs to be expanded to include a look at freshwater fish that would also be threatened by the Pebble Project, including pike and whitefish that play an important role in subsistence diets, Tilden said.
"We are people of fish," he said. "Fish is in our art. Fish is in our music. Fish is in our dance. It's who we are. That is our economy."
Rep. Charisse Millet, R-Anchorage, blasted McLerran, the EPA regional administrator who sat behind a table on stage.
"Shame on you for having the first meeting in Washington state," she said, adding that the decision shows the agency's "complete and utter arrogance" toward Alaska.
She said the EPA assessment takes prospective ideas from the project's developers to form an opinion, without waiting for hard information.
To a loud boo and jeering, she added: "You have just scared away every potential investor to the state of Alaska when it comes to mineral resource development."
Why was the meeting held in Seattle first? McLerran said, "This is an Alaskan issue, but it's also an international issue."
A line with more than 100 waiting to sign up snaked outside the auditorium an hour before the meeting began.
Jason Metrokin, chief executive of the Bristol Bay Native Corp., was one of the first. The corporation officially opposed the project because more than 80 percent of the corporation's shareholders are against it.
Though the company had not yet submitted a project for permitting, Pebble Limited had published enough information -- including the size, location and type of mine -- to determine that the huge amount of waste rock left behind at the Bristol Bay headwaters would damage the fishery.
Brad Angasan, an Anchorage resident who is getting ready to return to his home in Bristol Bay to commercial fish this summer, said he's not for or against the project. He wants to hear more about the plan before he makes up his mind. Others should also wait until a plan is presented before condemning it. Such development could bring high-paying jobs to a depressed region, he said.
"It's a big economic opportunity and it has the potential to bring Bristol Bay out of the economic disparity it's in now," said Angasan, son of Trefon Angasan, a consultant to the Pebble Partnership. "It would be easy for me to oppose it, but that would not be fair to" residents who want jobs.
The House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform says the EPA may not have the power to "pre-emptively veto" projects. In a May 10 letter to Lisa Jackson, the House notes that the attempt is an "unprecedented and legally questionable" interpretation of the Clean Water Act.
State Attorney General Michael Geraghty has also said the process stands on shaky legal ground, and that it would usurp state authority.
In response to such concerns, the EPA has been "exceptionally vague," says the committee letter, signed by Rep. Darrell Issa, committee chair, and Rep. Jim Jordan, chair of the Subcommittee on Regulatory Affairs, Stimulus Oversight and Government Spending.
McLerran replied in a letter to Geraghty that the EPA will address his concerns if it decides to use its regulatory power under section 404.
"This is a disappointing response to a legitimate issue raised by the attorney general," the letter from the committee said. "EPA has clearly stated on its web site that it has the authority to take such actions, but will not explain how it believes it can legally do so."
EPA's assertion of "preemptive veto power appears to undermine the permitting process as outlined by Congress when it passed the (Clean Water Act)," the letter from the congressional committee said.
The letter wanted to know by May 24 whether EPA plans to use the watershed assessment to issue a pre-emptive veto on the Pebble Project.
McLerran and Parkin said the EPA had provided a preliminary response to the committee. The response could not immediately be provided to Alaska Dispatch, said a spokeswoman.
Contact Alex DeMarban at alex(at)alaskadispatch.com