Our View: EPA makes right call on Pebble

Bill Roth

The Environmental Protection Agency last Friday began a process that could prevent development of the giant Pebble copper and gold prospect in the Bristol Bay watershed. Based on everything we know now, that was the right decision.

EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy and Region 10 chief Dennis McLerran made clear that the EPA's move begins a year-long consideration that could end in an outright veto of the project, restrictions and conditions on the project, or a return to the status quo of waiting for Pebble to apply for development permits.

But based on the agency's assessment of the Bristol Bay watershed, and all the information Pebble has provided so far, the answer is no Pebble project.

The EPA position should have been the state of Alaska's position from the beginning: the huge scale of the mine and the uniqueness and importance of Bristol Bay mean no developer should get the benefit of the doubt when it comes to protecting that watershed.

Pebble's would-be developers must prove that a massive mine, with all the risks that come with it, will never harm the pristine waters that produce the greatest red salmon fishery on the planet and a one-of-a-kind ecosystem.

Pebble developers must prove the mine won't harm subsistence, sport or commercial fisheries that provide livelihoods and sustain a Native culture.

Pebble must prove such a massive undertaking - one that would require many decades of expensive, diligent maintenance even after all the ore is mined - will never jeopardize the ecosystem.

Pebble must prove that any trade-offs -- and there will be inevitably trade-offs in development of such a mine -- will provide a net gain to both people of southwest Alaska and the state as a whole.

Backed by a comprehensive Bristol Bay watershed assessment, the EPA has concluded that Pebble can't meet that burden of proof.

Critics argue that EPA's use of a provision of the federal Clean Water Act -- section 404(c) -- to restrict or prohibit a project is federal "overreach," that it sets a dangerous precedent of blocking development and preempts a project that hasn't even been formally proposed.

First, let's be clear: the EPA is doing its job. Why have a Clean Water Act at all if not to protect a pristine natural watershed from potentially toxic industrial development? And let's remember that the EPA initially undertook to assess the Pebble project because many concerned Alaskans asked it to do so. Further, if the agency determines a huge-scale mine if wrong for the watershed, the Pebble Partnership itself is better off knowing sooner than later so it stop investing in a project that isn't going to happen.

Alaskans sought to involve the EPA, in part, because of a lack of trust in the Parnell administration to protect the ecosystem and the people who depend on it. Rather than block the project outright, as those petitioners wanted, the EPA initiated a thorough, transparent, peer-reviewed, scientific assessment of the Bristol Bay watershed. That's not overreach. That's conscientious and prudent regulation. From the beginning, the EPA made clear that it would make no decision on the ultimate fate of the project until it did its homework. That homework

Second, both McCarthy and McLerran made clear that this action is specific to the Bristol Bay watershed and Pebble. As McCarthy said, the agency didn't take this course lightly and acknowledges that this isn't "business as usual." Nor does this action affect EPA policies on other projects in Alaska or elsewhere.

Third, the EPA and Pebble both know that any profitable development must be huge. EPA's mine development models weren't fantasy. They were based on current mining techniques and documents submitted to the Securities and Exchange Commission by Northern Dynasty, Pebble's owner. Pebble developers have used their lack of a formally submitted plan of development as an excuse to suppress public discussion of mine development in the area.

Supporters of the Pebble developers are trying hard to divert the discussion from the mine project itself to the EPA.

Even Sen. Lisa Murkowski, a fierce critic of the EPA, has written to Pebble urging the developers to make their plans public. She and others are frustrated because Pebble keeps missing its own projected deadlines to reveal its plans by applying for permits. The fact that Pebble can't or won't clarify its plans after all this time does not inspire confidence in its competence.

Pebble developers can count on a year or more of due process consideration to come. In the meantime, the Pebble partnership and the Parnell administration have said they will challenge the EPA's actions.

If Pebble has a strong counter-argument to offer -- and that means something more substantive than generic EPA-bashing -- now is the time to put it on the record.

McCarthy said Friday that the agency remains open to new information. But without new and compelling information, the EPA's answer to Pebble development is no. Given what we know now and the extraordinary stakes in Bristol Bay, that's the right answer.

BOTTOM LINE: EPA's "no" is the right answer to Pebble unless Pebble can refute the agency's Bristol Bay assessment.