Sen. Lisa Murkowski last week expressed strong concerns about the permitting process for the Pebble copper and gold mine, saying at an event organized by a mine opponent that Pebble should not be permitted unless key questions are answered.
The Environmental Protection Agency and other agencies have raised “justifiable” issues with the Army Corps of Engineers’ 1,400-page draft review of the project’s potential impacts, she said.
“We have read what the EPA has said, and their very strong criticism of inadequacy of statements that just didn’t hold up, of data that wasn’t sufficient,” she said Sept. 18.
“So I look at that and say if the data, if the science out there that has been raised by these agencies can’t demonstrate that you can have a successful mining project in an area that is as sensitive as the Bristol Bay watershed then a permit should not issue," she said.
Murkowski spoke at the third annual Bristol Bay Wild Salmon celebration in Washington, D.C. The Bristol Bay Native Corp., an Alaska Native regional corporation and mine opponent, organized the event with partner groups to promote the region’s salmon.
The Army Corps said Monday it “will ensure a thorough and transparent review before a final decision is rendered,” according to a statement from Tom Findtner, head of Corps’ public affairs in Alaska.
Mike Heatwole, spokesman with mine developer Pebble Limited Partnership, said the EPA’s comments are a standard part of the review process. He’s confident the issues will be resolved. “We have been responding to a range of requests for information” from the Corps, as is common, he said.
In a video of the event, Murkowski spoke beside Jason Metrokin, president of BBNC, to occasional applause. The video was shot by the Environmental Investigation Agency, a nonprofit conservation group opposed to the mine.
The mine would straddle salmon-producing headwaters of the valuable Bristol Bay fishery. Pebble Limited applied with the Corps in 2017 for a major construction-related permit to discharge fill material into federal waters.
The EPA in July told the Corps that the draft review, released in February, “appears to lack certain critical information” about the project and “likely underestimates impacts and risks” to water quality, wetlands, aquatic resources and air quality.
In a separate statement to the Corps, the EPA said the project “may have substantial and unacceptable adverse impacts on fisheries resources in the project area watersheds, which are aquatic resources of national importance.” Now, the EPA has undertaken a process to determine if the project actually will have such an impact on those resources.
The EPA is working with the Corps to develop sections of the final environmental report, planned for release next year before the federal government decides whether to approve a permit.
Murkowski said during her talk that as someone who makes policy, she needs to have a process in place that people trust. People need to take faith in the science that drives that process, she said.
Murkowski, chair of the Senate Appropriations Interior and Environment Subcommittee, which has jurisdiction over the EPA, said she would use her position to make sure procedures are followed during the permitting review.
The Corps and EPA need to resolve the “gaps" and "deficiencies” in the review, she said.
“I don’t have a magic wand, and I know that there are some out there who believe that I do, but I need to make sure that it is heard that these responsibilities to a process must be attended do,” she said.