In an April 24 ADN Compass piece, Sen. Lisa Murkowski discussed her reasons for signing on as a co-sponsor of the Regulatory Fairness Act, a bill that limits the Environmental Protection Agency from retroactive or preemptive veto of dredge and fill permits as provided for in Section 404(c) of the 1972 Clean Water Act. EPA's move to evaluate the proposed Pebble Mine under that section seems to be the catalyst for her support.
EPA is taking action because Bristol Bay region tribes, fishing organizations and other Alaskans asked them to do so. In supporting this bill, Senator Murkowski joins a senator from West Virginia and one from Louisiana, states whose recent environmental disasters might suggest the need for more oversight rather than less.
Sen. Murkowski began her piece with three questions that were designed to show how EPA is a threat to Alaska. However, those questions can be rephrased to reflect an opposite view that, to me, is more of a concern.
• What would Alaskans say if multinational corporations were able to use their political muscle, recently enhanced by Supreme Court decisions, to circumvent the Clean Water Act while jeopardizing established economies, communities and activities?
• What would we think about a federal agency so hobbled by special-interest lobbying that it could no longer effectively weigh risks of proposed development?
• And what would you think if a federal agency could only rely on corporate assertions without due regulatory process?
As part of the argument to show that EPA has unfairly expanded its reach, Sen. Murkowski cited a 2011 retroactive veto of a dredge and fill permit in West Virginia as and indication of "...effectively limitless veto power." Does anyone really doubt that there might be cause for permit revocation in a state that, earlier this year, was subject to a chemical spill that contaminated water supplies for 300,000 residents and mountaintop-removal coal mining that has such obvious consequences to hydrology and landscape?
With respect to Alaska, Sen. Murkowski cited Prudhoe Bay, ANWR and the Nikiski LNG terminal as being threatened by EPA power. Those projects are in no way comparable to the Pebble Mine -- an open pit larger than any other in North America and a tailings pond that would require perpetual monitoring in the watershed of the worlds largest sockeye salmon run that supports a $1.5 billion economy and 14,000 sustainable jobs along with providing for local subsistence and countless recreational activities. If they were, EPA would already be well within their authority to intervene.
EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy clearly stated that using the 404(c) process for Pebble was due to the uniqueness of Bristol Bay, not a wholesale policy shift. While EPA may be in "near-constant disputes" at other places around Alaska, revoking EPA authority under Section 404(c) is akin to throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
EPA's decision to begin a 404(c) evaluation for Pebble is "preemptive" because formal permit applications have not been filed, never mind that plans have been revealed in other venues. Nonetheless, EPA's action comes after a full decade of delays and obfuscation by Pebble. Sen. Murkowski acknowledged Alaskan's frustration and economic uncertainty last summer, when she publicly requested that the Pebble Partnership reveal their plans. In her Compass, she stated her commitment to "...full protection of the world-class fisheries in the area" while claiming that she has "reserved judgment" on Pebble. It seems to me that we can't have it both ways.
I appreciate the work that Sen. Murkowski does for Alaska and Alaskans. However, the time for fence-sitting on Pebble has come and gone. Peer reviewed, rigorous and irrefutable science has indicated that Pebble would compromise the region's irreplaceable salmon-based economy and ecosystem. A broad-based coalition of Alaskans and others asked EPA to intervene and they have done so in a deliberate, fair, and thorough fashion with ample opportunity for input both pro and con.
Legislation to eliminate preemptive action by EPA under Section 404(c) of the Clean Water Act increases risks and extends uncertainty for Alaskans, especially with regard to the Pebble Mine and Bristol Bay.
Charles W. "Chip" Treinen has fished in a variety of Alaska's fisheries from Southeast to the Bering Sea for over 30 years. He lives in Anchorage.
By CHIP TREINEN