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Sen. Murkowski is right: The Army Corps needs to bring science back to Pebble permitting

  • Author: Jason Metrokin
    | Opinion
    , Alannah Hurley
    | Opinion
    , Ralph Andersen
    | Opinion
    , Norm Van Vactor
    | Opinion
  • Updated: September 29
  • Published September 28

Sen. Lisa Murkowski talks with Julie Anderson, commissioner of the Alaska Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development, in the senator's Washington office on June 18, 2019. (Marc Lester / ADN)

“If a mine cannot stand on its own without negative impact to the fisheries resource, then that mine should not be permitted.” – Sen. Lisa Murkowski, Sept. 18, 2019

That statement, delivered during Bristol Bay Native Corporation’s annual salmon celebration in Washington, D.C., quickly traveled from the U.S. Capitol all the way back to Bristol Bay, where many of our organizations have been working to expose the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers inadequate environmental review process for Pebble.

The D.C. event brought together hundreds of Alaskans and others to celebrate and sample wild Bristol Bay sockeye salmon. Throughout the same week, more than two dozen restaurants in Washington, D.C., featured wild Bristol Bay sockeye on their menus, giving residents of the nation’s capital a taste of what makes the Bristol Bay region so special and why its salmon is revered the world over.

The salmon celebration was a treat for the nation’s capital. But, here in Bristol Bay, salmon is a staple, and the threat Pebble poses is very real. Our senator’s remarks were a welcome acknowledgement of this threat that looms. In her harshest criticism of the permitting process for the mine proposal to date, Sen. Murkowski expressed her deep dissatisfaction with the draft environmental impact statement (DEIS) released by the Corps of Engineers.

“I will use my seat on the Appropriations Committee to make sure that the EPA and the Corps hear clearly that they must address these (concerns),” said Murkowski. “They must address these, and if they fail to do so then a permit should not be issued.”

This past week, the committee Sen. Murkowski chairs put these concerns into report language for the 2020 Interior, Environment and Related Agencies appropriations bill. The committee report noted that multiple federal agencies, Alaska Native groups and other stakeholders have identified numerous gaps and deficiencies in the DEIS, and these must be addressed even if doing so requires additional scientific study, data collection and more comprehensive analysis of the project’s potential impacts. The report language further encourages the Department of the Interior (DOI), National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to use their authorities, including their enforcement authorities, to protect Bristol Bay if their concerns are not addressed. Importantly, these authorities include EPA’s authority under Section 404 of the Clean Water Act to restrict or veto a permit.

Our senior Senator is right to exercise her considerable power because the concerns and objections of the people of Bristol Bay and other Alaskans, expressed through public comments, hearings and meetings in Alaska and Washington, D.C., have been ignored by some federal regulators and the state administration. Despite clear evidence that the DEIS lacks critical data and information that would be essential in any mine plan, the Corps of Engineers has remained undeterred in meeting an arbitrary and overly aggressive timeline for permitting the project.

During the formal comment period earlier this summer, EPA, the State of Alaska, DOI and NMFS all submitted detailed and scathing critiques of the draft statement. These agencies flagged problems that included underestimating the potential for water contamination, a failure to assess the impact to streams and wetlands, inadequately assessing potential tailings spills or impacts on fish population and health, and the possibility of mine expansion. The DEIS simply leaves too many questions about the potential impacts of the project unanswered.

The Corps of Engineers, the federal agency in charge of permitting the mine, has done nothing to address the concerns that have been raised. On a recent conference call, the Corps expressly ruled out a new or supplement DEIS, even though the Pebble Limited Partnership has submitted substantial changes to its application since the public comment period closed, with more surely to come. The recent report language in the Interior appropriations bill should send a clear message to the Corps and other federal cooperating agencies that changes are necessary.

We applaud Sen. Murkowski for recognizing that the status quo is unacceptable, and for giving the agencies direction to get on the right track. The Corps must change its approach and bring science and the expertise of other agencies and of the people of Bristol Bay back into the process. We invite all of Alaska’s elected officials to join as we continue the fight to protect our people, our fish, and our way of life.

Jason Metrokin is president and CEO of Bristol Bay Native Corporation. Alannah Hurley is a lifelong Bristol Bay resident and executive director of the United Tribes of Bristol Bay. Ralph Andersen is president and CEO of Bristol Bay Native Association. Norm Van Vactor is president and CEO of Bristol Bay Economic Development Corporation.

The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by the Anchorage Daily News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)adn.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@adn.com or click here to submit via any web browser. Read our full guidelines for letters and commentaries here.

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