JUNEAU — A watchdog has found no evidence of bias in how the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency conducted a study on the potential effects of large-scale mining on a world-premier salmon fishery in Alaska's Bristol Bay region.
The inspector general for the EPA also concluded in a report released Wednesday that the agency did not predetermine the study's outcome.
But the report found that a now-retired EPA employee in Alaska used his personal email in 2010 to suggest edits to a tribal petition requesting that the agency take action under the federal Clean Water Act to protect the Bristol Bay region. The inspector general's report says it found no proof of anything illegal but that the worker may have misused his position.
The inspector general was not able to review all the employee's work emails, noting that the EPA said more than two years' worth of emails were missing, and didn't have access to the employee's personal account. It said it was unclear whether the employee reviewed the draft petition in a personal or official capacity.
The state of Alaska and the owner of the proposed Pebble Mine, Northern Dynasty Minerals Ltd., were among those who asked the inspector general in 2014 to investigate the EPA's preparation of the Bristol Bay watershed assessment. They raised concerns about potential bias within the agency, citing emails obtained through records requests and the threat of a pre-emptive veto of the project before it enters the permitting phase.
Later in 2014, the EPA proposed restrictions that could block development of the mine, using a rarely invoked process under the federal Clean Water Act. A federal judge, however, ordered that the agency stop that work while a lawsuit against the EPA is pending.
The lawsuit, filed by the Pebble Limited Partnership, alleges that the EPA was in cahoots with anti-mine activists in drafting the watershed assessment that provided the basis for the agency's actions. The Pebble Limited Partnership is working to advance the mine and has argued that the EPA should not be able to veto the project before a mine plan is finalized and evaluated through the permitting process. The lawsuit has not been resolved.
In a statement, EPA regional administrator Dennis McLerran said the agency is pleased the review "confirms that our rigorous scientific study of the Bristol Bay watershed and our robust public process were entirely consistent with our laws, regulations, policies, and procedures and were based on sound scientific analysis."
Tom Collier, CEO of the Pebble Limited Partnership, called on Congress to continue its oversight of the EPA's actions and said the group is not through making its case that the agency acted inappropriately on the Pebble project.
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