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It's way too early to cast aside Alaska's controversial Pebble project

Chuck Becker
EPA photo

There seems to be an unfounded perception that foreign investment in Alaska’s economy is a bad thing.  As one who has participated in many facets of Alaska’s economy for most of my adult life, let’s be clear about one thing:  Every major industry in Alaska depends upon foreign companies investing in our state in order to keep our economy moving.  This includes fishing, but more about that in a moment.

There was so much hyperbole in a recent editorial from two well-meaning Bristol Bay residents about the Environmental Protection Agency’s egregious step into Alaska’s business that it is difficult to know where to begin.

First, let’s begin with who invited the EPA and for what purpose.  The EPA was not asked to come to Alaska to assess the Bristol Bay watershed.  They were asked to pre-emptively shut down Pebble before a mine plan has been presented in its entirety and before a well-established permitting process for the mine has been initiated.  This has never been done before in the history of the EPA.

The EPA’s compromise, if one can call it that, was to assess the Bristol Bay watershed. They set out to focus on the largest area studied in the history of the agency, and they conducted it in the shortest time frame for a watershed assessment. The result was a rush, flawed piece of work.

Read the state of Alaska’s critique of the EPA process and their draft study.  Among the points the state raised was the following:  “…EPA was far less successful in characterizing mine development, determining the likelihood of failures, identifying mitigation measures, and assessing likely impacts of mine development.”  The state has appropriately questioned the timing and legality of the EPA’s actions.  It is interesting to note that no one disputes the appropriate role for the EPA, and other agencies, as part of the normal review process for a project once the permitting process has been initiated. 

The editorial further asserts that the EPA has been “fair.” If that is the case, why was the EPA compelled to publish an executive summary with photos that were different than what was published in the actual executive summary in the report?  Why streams were magnified several thousand times larger than their actual size in the report? Why did the EPA meet behind closed doors with the peer review panel and no one else in the room?  If the review process was so robust, why has the EPA empaneled a second peer review team? This process is being conducted outside the public eye with no public role whatsoever.  To this writer, it raises significant questions about the integrity of the process.

We’ve also been told of the robust Bristol Bay fishery and the 14,000 people it seasonally employs.  No one disputes the important role of commercial fishing to Alaska’s economy. This does not exempt us from asking questions about it in the context of the economic discussion in the region. There is foreign investment in seafood processing. There is greater participation in the Bristol Bay drift fishery by residents from outside of Alaska than local participation because most residents have sold their permits to meet the oppressively high cost of living in the region.  The seafood processing workforce has the highest percentage of out-of-state workers of any Alaska industry. And, some processing operators have been subjected to significant fines from the EPA for environmental violations.

Alaska has a rigorous permitting process with high standards that must be met before we allow development activities to occur in our state.  This process is based on science and law.  Our public policy makers develop the framework for this process as the appropriate way to evaluate projects.  All projects, including fish plants and the power plants that run them, must work through this process.  Before we run down the path of throwing this process out because Pebble causes us to not see straight, let’s take a collective deep breath. Our actions today may have implications far beyond the current situation.

As Alaskans, we are far better off working together to solve our problems.  I know of colleagues in the fishing industry who fear the encroachment of critical habitat designations more than Pebble, and who will want a collective approach to challenging them rather than trying to fight it alone.

Chuck Becker, a long-time resident and observer of the Alaska economy, is the principal of Becker & Associates, LLC in Anchorage.

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