The loud fracas over possible development of the Pebble prospect in the Bristol Bay area is not a resource fight, it is a federal attempt to prematurely block Alaska's right to decide how, or even whether, to develop its resources.
To pull it off, the EPA has cobbled together a hasty, broad draft assessment of the Bristol Bay watershed that now is under review by a scientific peer panel. The rushed assessment encompasses 20,000 square miles -- the combined size of Rhode Island, Delaware, Connecticut and New Jersey, with an extra Rhode Island or so left over. It took barely a year.
The agency called it "An Assessment of Potential Mining Impacts on Salmon Ecosystems of Bristol Bay, Alaska." It focused on the Nushagak and Kvichak rivers' watersheds, the largest of the region's six major river basins. Given the vast area and the truncated time frame, it more properly could have been called, "CliffsNotes on the Bristol Bay Thingy."
The rich Pebble prospect at the Nushagak and Kvichak rivers' intersection potentially could produce 81 billion pounds of copper, 107 million ounces of gold and 6 billion pounds of molybdenum -- and be a huge economic engine for the region. Opponents counter it would threaten the world's largest sockeye salmon fishery. Bristol Bay's commercial salmon industry generates about $300 million a year and more than 11,000 jobs.
The study -- more a transparent justification to jump the gun on the state's permitting process than a scientific evaluation -- clearly is aimed at the proposed Pebble Mine. But -- surprise! -- there is no mine. No detailed plans for a mine. No state or federal applications for a mine. No request for EPA permission for a mine. Despite that, and using who-knows-what for information, the EPA concluded large-scale mining in Southwest Alaska may -- or may not -- harm Bristol Bay's world-class salmon habitat. How it came to its conclusions with no current plans or permits to work from is anybody's guess.
We can argue, of course, about the streams or the fish or the outcomes, but the reality seems to be that the EPA, prodded along by anti-development, fisheries and Native interests, appears ready and willing -- if not straining at the bit -- to use its ginned up "study" to justify a political decision to derail a state process before it begins. You have to wonder why.
Applying for mining permits to build a large project in Alaska, after all, is no walk in the park. It is a complicated, grinding, expensive proposition that involves more than two dozen state and federal agencies. It is not something a company or consortium takes on as a lark. Given that Alaska's process is rigorous and thorough, why would the EPA be jumping out front to kill Pebble before the state even receives a permit application?
Why not let Alaska do its job? Why not recognize Alaska's right to deal with its resources under its constitution? Simple. The anti-Pebble forces cannot gamble on mine proponents prevailing in a fair, open process. They are hoping the EPA will do their dirty work.
Make no mistake, the EPA has authority under the Clean Water Act of 1972 to get involved. Section 404(c) of the act authorizes the "EPA to restrict, prohibit, deny, or withdraw the use of an area as a disposal site for dredged or fill material if the discharge will have unacceptable adverse effects on municipal water supplies, shellfish beds and fishery areas, wildlife, or recreational areas."
The really bad news? The agency can "prohibit or otherwise restrict the specification of a site under Section 404(c) with regard to any existing or potential disposal site before a permit application has been submitted to or approved by the Corps or a state."
Thankfully, the agency rarely uses its 404(c) authority, but Pebble proponents see the EPA effort in Bristol Bay as the first step in that direction.
That would be terrible for Alaska. Nobody wants Bristol Bay trashed. Nobody wants fisheries harmed. Certainly no Alaskan. But, beyond biological impacts, there is a key political question that must be answered: Why should the EPA be able to overrule a project even before a state permitting process can begin -- or the first application is made?
Why not let Alaska's process take its course? Is it payback to special interests? Green craziness? Latte overload?
It smacks of bureaucratic bullying, but that cannot be it.
Paul Jenkins is editor of the AnchorageDailyPlanet.com.