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Congressional GOP members fear EPA will halt Pebble early

Sean CockerhamMcClatchy-Tribune News Service

WASHINGTON -- Congressional Republicans are lining up against the possibility that the Environmental Protection Agency would block the proposed Pebble mine in the Bristol Bay area, a region that produces about half the world's wild sockeye salmon.

The top investigator for the science committee in the U.S. House, Georgia Republican Rep. Paul Broun, wrote to EPA this week to say that its recent study of the effect of such a large mine in the area falls short and shouldn't be used to block development.

The EPA says it has made no decision to try to stop Pebble, but that hasn't prevented Republicans from challenging the EPA's authority to act even before Pebble applies for mining permits.

California Republican Rep. Darrell Issa, the House oversight committee chairman, and Ohio Republican Rep. Jim Jordan, say the EPA doesn't have authority to pre-emptively veto permits for the Pebble mine.

Supporters of Pebble and politicians in Alaska and Washington, D.C., say they're worried the EPA will use its study to foreclose development of the massive copper and gold mine even before it submits its plans for approval and applies for permits.

Opponents of the mine are urging EPA to act.

The hotly debated study, which the agency calls a draft assessment, found that even if such a mine operated smoothly, up to 87 miles of rivers or streams would be lost or blocked, as could thousands of acres of wetlands vital as fish habitat.

EPA, while insisting it has the authority to block the plans even before the Pebble developers apply for permits, says it has made no decision to try to stop the mine.

Associate EPA Administrator Arvin Ganesan said congressional Republicans are fretting about a "hypothetical," and the federal study isn't a finished product.

"The EPA has initiated a watershed assessment in the Bristol Bay to better understand the potential effects of large-scale mining on the Bay's water quality and valuable fishery resources... We are conducting the assessment to inform future decision-making," Ganesan wrote in a recent letter to members of Congress.

A group of independent scientists are currently reviewing the quality of the EPA's study and held meetings in Anchorage this week. At least some have suggested the study needs more work and their recommendations are scheduled to come out in the fall.

The proposed Pebble mine is one of the most controversial development prospects in the history of Alaska. The area has streams that feed world class runs of red salmon, king salmon and rainbow trout.

The Pebble prospect appears to be a unique case for the EPA.

The agency, when asked repeatedly this week, provided no other examples in which the agency conducted a similar assessment of a mining prospect before plans for the mine have been submitted.

EPA did the study after being petitioned by tribal groups and Bristol Bay Native Corp., which say the risk is too great and want the agency to stop the mine.

More than 200,000 people submitted written comments on the assessment and roughly 90 percent supported the agency's findings, according to the EPA.

Pebble advocates argue that mining and fishing can co-exist in the Bristol Bay area and that the project would bring badly needed jobs. The Pebble Partnership, the group behind the Pebble mine project, has called the deposit one of the largest of its kind in the world, with the potential of producing 80.6 billion pounds of copper, 107.4 million ounces of gold and 5.6 billion pounds of molybdenum over about three decades.

Pebble and its supporters told the EPA that the study was rushed and flawed. The Pebble Limited Partnership hasn't yet submitted its development plan. It says the EPA assessment was based on a hypothetical mine that won't happen instead of its actual plans.

EPA made clear in a letter to Congress that it has the authority to act. Administrator Lisa Jackson has power under the Clean Water Act to veto discharges she finds would have an "unacceptable adverse effect" on fisheries, including spawning areas, according to the agency. It said that can happen before a mine applies for its needed dredging and filling permits from the Army Corps of Engineers.

Those are fighting words for Republicans in Congress, who have made EPA the target on a range of issues.

Issa called it an "unprecedented and legally questionable interpretation of the Clean Water Act." Broun followed that up with his letter to the EPA this week.

"These are serious concerns. If EPA ultimately uses this watershed assessment as justification to preemptively veto mining permits in Bristol Bay -- notwithstanding EPA's legal authority to do so -- the scientific credibility of the assessment will need to be beyond reproach," Brown wrote. "This is obviously not the case..."

Alaska's congressional delegation, including its lone Democrat, Sen. Mark Begich, is also against the EPA moving quickly to put a stop to the Pebble mine.

"I remain opposed to any pre-emptive decision on the Pebble mine. While the project needs to meet a high hurdle -- protecting the world's largest and most valuable salmon run -- developers should be allowed to present their project and it should succeed or fail on its merits," Begich said in a written statement.

Email: scockerham@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @seancockerham

PDF: Comments from the review panel
By SEAN COCKERHAM
Anchorage Daily News