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EPA jumped gun with its Pebble mining project report

Paul Jenkins

It is bothersome when a supposedly neutral federal agency jumps the gun to help anti-development forces trying to derail a project even before it can be defined.

The Environmental Protection Agency's very quick, very speculative, very broad watershed analysis affecting mining -- read Pebble prospect -- in the Bristol Bay region is a nifty example.

The proposed mine -- "proposed" being the key word -- is located where the Nushagak and Kvichak rivers intersect. It potentially could produce 81 billion pounds of copper, 107 million ounces of gold and 6 billion pounds of molybdenum.

Proponents tout its jobs and a healthy fiscal future for economically hard-hit Southwest Alaska. Opponents say it would threaten fisheries that generate 14,000 full-and part-time jobs and is valued at $480 million -- $300 million from the commercial salmon fishery alone.

Despite endless acrimony over Pebble, not everybody opposes its development. The only opportunity, so far, to weigh local sentiment was last fall's advisory election in the Lake and Peninsula Borough. The outcome was 280-246 to block Pebble -- remarkable considering the campaign's bitter ferocity.

The target of a grinding, endless propaganda attack financed by a filthy-rich Anchorage money manager who owns a fishing lodge in the region, the Pebble prospect remains just that -- a prospect. No mine. No specific, detailed plan for a mine. No state application to build a mine. No request for EPA permission for a mine. Yet, without an application or detailed, final plan to work from, the EPA ginned up hypotheticals to conclude large-scale mining in Southwest Alaska could harm Bristol Bay's prized salmon habitat.

After an inordinately quick, year-long assessment of 20,000 square miles, the agency surmised a mine dam could collapse, or not; that nearby streams could be lost, or not; that wetlands could be affected, or not; that streams could be blocked, or not. It concluded that even if everything goes right, something could go wrong -- but the odds against it are long.

As The Associated Press put it: "EPA's assessment put the annual probability of failure for a tailings dam -- the kind that could destroy more than 18 miles of salmon stream and degrade the habitat of more streams and rivers for decades -- in the range of 1-in-10,000 for a project designed, built and operated using standard engineering practices, to 1-in-one million for a state-of-the-art operation."

Nobody wants Bristol Bay endangered, even if the odds are 1-in-1 million. But, with Pebble's potential regional economic impact, why not let a rigorous, fair state application process have a chance to work, to honestly assess whether it can be developed?

Pebble opponents cannot risk that. They want the EPA to jump now, using its assessment to hamstring development before the Pebble Partnership can even apply to the state.

The Fairbanks Daily News-Miner a few days ago said EPA Associate Administrator Arvin Ganesan wrote Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., saying the Clean Water Act might apply to the streams in the Pebble region.

"The plain language of the statute and the agency's long-standing regulations clearly authorize the administrator to prohibit or restrict use of a defined area of the waters of the U.S. prior to the submittal of an application for a CWA Section 404 permit," he wrote.

The EPA administrator can do this, he said, quoting the U.S. code, " 'whenever (she) determines' that the discharge of dredged or fill material will have an 'unacceptable adverse effect' on municipal water supplies, shellfish beds and fishery areas (including spawning and breeding areas), wildlife or recreational areas."

The newspaper wondered the obvious: "How can the EPA determine that a proposal will have an 'unacceptable adverse effect' before it even receives an application describing the proposal?" How, indeed?

The guerrilla war against Pebble has been a misguided, agitprop operation to kill it before it reaches a fair hearing. It is easier, after all, to lie about Pebble on television than dispute facts in an open forum.

The EPA, rather than being enticed to abuse its authority, should offer its information to Alaska to help achieve an informed decision on Pebble's application -- when one exists -- and then let the process work. Anything else screams collusion.

If the EPA were to unilaterally block Pebble, it would bode ill for future resource extraction in this state -- and challenge Alaska's rights to its resources.

But then, maybe that's the goal.

Paul Jenkins is editor of the

Paul Jenkins