Pebble project must have its day in scientific review process

The EPA's 338-page Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment had only been out several hours before anti-development groups called for a preemptive veto of the Pebble project -- before it has applied for a single permit under the Clean Water Act.

While the act gives EPA authority to veto other agencies' approval of permits, it is unprecedented that the agency would prepare its assessment in advance of any permit application. Moreover, the agency has rarely used its veto authority and never in advance of permits being issued by other agencies.

Opponents claim the burden of proof is on Pebble to show it will have no impact on the Bristol Bay fishery. How can Pebble do so if it is denied access to the state and federal permitting process? Killing Pebble now would be no different than saying yes to the project before it enters the process. It would be no different than a mob denying someone a fair trial.

Every project should have an opportunity to be reviewed on its merits. Pebble must successfully obtain more than 60 major permits before advancing. An Environmental Impact Statement will be required, including analysis of Pebble's detailed plans and proposed mitigation measures. But Pebble has yet to submit a formal application containing these elements.

When Pebble presents its package to regulators, all options and aspects of the project will be thoroughly analyzed. If the science-driven process ultimately determines the project would have an adverse effect on Bristol Bay fisheries, Pebble will not advance.

Using a rushed watershed assessment with perhaps pre-determined conclusions to stop Pebble would be wrong. Our attorney general has warned preemptive action would be illegal. It would deprive government agencies and stakeholders of the specific information, science and rigorous reviews that would come out of the multi-year process.

If the EPA denies Pebble access to the process, it would be an assault on Alaska sovereignty. A preemptive veto of Pebble, located on state land specifically designated for mineral exploration, would rob Alaska of its sovereign right to determine uses of state land. In Southwest Alaska, land-use designations already prohibit or restrict resource development on about 70 percent of the land.

Pebble still must show it can coexist with fishing.

The EPA assessment concludes a large-scale mine would result in significant impact on fish populations in streams surrounding the site. However, this does not spell disaster for Bristol Bay since the streams near the prospect contribute only a very small fraction of total salmon runs. The assessment also ignores mitigation that will be required to offset impacts.

To impose a zero tolerance impact on wetlands and habitat would set a near impossible standard for major projects, including community infrastructure. There would have been no resource development in Alaska had such a standard applied across the state. Our economy and communities would be a fraction of their current size. None of our highways would exist.

The EPA must allow the permitting process to work. Decisions on Pebble must come through that process, and only after the completion of a thorough Environmental Impact Statement and evaluation of the project. The process was designed to provide a full and honest assessment with public input at various phases to help reach informed decisions. A preemptive veto would undermine the process and set a dangerous precedent for future projects.

The EPA assessment ignores the positive benefits of Pebble in a region without a diverse economy. While the fishery provides important commercial and subsistence benefits, fishing alone has not provided the needed support to improve the region's economy. Fishing by its nature is seasonal, and a majority of those employed in the fishery live outside Alaska. People in the region are leaving and schools are closing, while Pebble has the potential to diversify the local economy, providing thousands of year-round jobs.

Alaska is not a third-world nation where projects are nationalized and no fair process exists. Pebble offers too much potential to be denied an opportunity to present its plan and show how it will comply with environmental laws -- and protect the fishery.

Carl Portman is a lifelong Alaskan and the deputy director of the Resource Development Council.