EPA should extend Pebble comment time

The Environmental Protection Agency's Dennis McLerran is claiming overwhelming public support for the agency's Draft Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment, a controversial report on the potential effects of mining in the region. What he fails to mention is the source of most of this purported support: pre-written mass emails generated by national environmental groups. The EPA describes the messages as identical in both form and content.

It is troubling that the EPA is rushing through this draft report and ignoring the concerns of so many Alaskans. I am baffled by the EPA's refusal to extend its public comment period on the assessment. It received numerous requests by Alaska Native regional and village corporations, the State of Alaska and other concerned Alaskans for more time to read, digest and evaluate this lengthy and controversial document.

The EPA gave Alaskans just 60 days to provide feedback during our busiest season -- summer. Of concern beyond this is its apparent reliance on national spam campaigns to gauge public sentiment -- outside the norm for government agencies that typically weight mass mail campaigns as one comment. It has the power to increase its comment periods to accommodate public need. And there is no policy reason for not doing so. So why won't it?

Because in this case the EPA seems to be pursuing politics over policy, perhaps trying to rush through the process before a potential change in administration this fall.

It's no secret that this White House and the EPA have close ties to environmental groups. In a recent hearing of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Oklahoma Sen. Jim Inhofe described the situation as a "revolving door" between Obama administration officials and major national environmental groups. The hearing was meant to get an explanation from Region 6 Administrator Al Armendariz about statements he made calling for the "crucifying" of oil and gas companies. Armendariz, who was forced to resign after the statements were made public, did not show up for the hearing and now works for the Sierra Club. His resume includes past collaborations with radical groups such as Environmental Defense.

A top aide to Administrator Lisa Jackson used to work for the Natural Resources Defense Council, a group that is actively using the Pebble issue to raise money.

Jackson has refused to meet with leaders from communities closest to Pebble who advocate for due process and a sustainable economy for Bristol Bay. They have traveled to Washington, D.C., on numerous occasions to discuss their concerns. While the administrator regularly meets with Pebble opponents, her refusal to meet with people representing communities closest to Pebble is astonishing.

The EPA is not listening to the full spectrum of Alaskan concerns in this matter. The debate should first be between Alaskans, and the outcomes should be determined by the facts and the science using established processes.

Recent editorials by the Daily News and opinions offered about the EPA study claim the time frame and study were sufficient. This so-called watershed assessment was for the largest land area ever undertaken by the EPA and rushed through in less than a year -- the shortest period for a watershed assessment. There was no new science, and speculative conclusions from a hypothetical mine scenario were spelled out to the hundredth decimal point.

The State of Alaska has repeatedly asked for more involvement and more time in this matter. The attorney general has questioned the legality of the entire process reinforcing the concern as to why EPA is rushing through such an important matter.

The issues raised around Pebble are controversial and important. Pebble is on Alaska land and could bring needed jobs to our state. Whether you support it, oppose it or sit in the middle, it warrants careful time and consideration as a matter of public policy.

Kathryn Thomas is a former president of the Alaska State Chamber of Commerce and a current board member of Truth About Pebble. She lives in Kenai.