Politics

Alaska Gov. Dunleavy urges EPA to stop veto of Pebble mine

Governor Dunleavy, Governor Mike Dunleavy, Mike Dunleavy, governor

Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy is asking the Environmental Protection Agency to put the brakes on its effort to stop the giant Pebble copper and gold project.

In May, the federal agency proposed halting the proposed mine under a provision of the Clean Water Act it has used sparingly. It says the mine would be among the world’s largest open-pit copper mines and threatens the Bristol Bay region’s valuable wild salmon fishery and people who rely on it.

The agency is expected to decide by Dec. 2 whether it will move ahead with its proposal.

In his Sept. 6, three-page letter to Casey Sixkiller, administrator of the EPA region that includes Alaska, Dunleavy said the proposed veto of the project is “deeply concerning” and would undermine Alaska’s legal decision-making authority in resource development.

The letter, accompanied by the state’s 53-page comment to the agency, was obtained through a routine records request by the Daily News for the governor’s monthly correspondence.

Dunleavy said the EPA proposal, if finalized, would make preemptive decisions about which resources Alaska can develop and how it can develop them. It chooses fisheries over mining, while disregarding Alaska’s ability to protect its fishery resources, the governor said in the letter.

“Whether, and how, Alaska develops Bristol Bay’s mineral resources or its fishery resources — or both, responsibly — is Alaska’s decision to make, considering the input of all stakeholders and working through the standard permitting process,” Dunleavy said in the letter. “EPA would instead choke off further discussion, usurping for itself this important decision affecting so many Alaskans.”

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If EPA follows through, the action “would constitute a regulatory taking, for which compensation, in the billions, is due,” the governor said.

The letter echoes previous statements by the governor. In May, after the EPA announced its plans, the governor’s office said that Pebble should have the chance to move through a “fair and complete permitting process” without disruption from EPA. The governor in the statement said the move could “very well become the template for stopping future mines in Alaska and across the country.”

The Pebble deposit is located on state land about 200 miles southwest of Anchorage, near headwaters of the salmon fishery. Critics say it would only be a matter of time before spawning grounds are injured by mine pollution, devastating the world’s largest sockeye salmon fishery. The developer, Pebble Limited Partnership, has said the project will be built safely, while unlocking valuable minerals and creating thousands of jobs in a region with high unemployment.

Under the standard permitting process, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers under President Donald Trump rejected construction approval for the project in 2020. Pebble Limited is appealing that decision.

[Alaska’s push to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge backfired. Here’s how.]

Opponents of the mine want EPA to veto the project to provide enduring protection that Pebble will not be built.

When asked, Dunleavy has repeatedly declined to answer whether he supports the project. But his letter to EPA is the latest in a series of actions he has taken favoring the proposed mine.

In one move early last year, the Dunleavy administration said it would file an administrative appeal challenging the Corps’ rejection of the project.

At the time, the governor said the Corps’ “flawed” denial of the Pebble project creates a “dangerous precedent” that could hurt other resource development projects in Alaska. The Corps decided soon after that the state does not have standing to join the appeal process.

Also, documents uncovered in 2019 indicate the governor used ghostwritten language provided by Pebble in letters, including one to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, to urge against an extension of a public comment period sought by mine opponents, according to a report by CNN. The letter said an arbitrary extension by the Corps would send a negative message to investors that the regulatory process in Alaska is unaccountable.

In another letter to a company considering investing in Pebble, Dunleavy also used language similar to what Pebble had provided, CNN said. The letter said permit applicants should have the opportunity to complete the permitting process, and that the state would support the company’s investment in Alaska.

Meeting with reporters, the governor acknowledged at the time that he could see how some Alaskans would conclude, based on CNN’s report, that he supports Pebble but he stressed that he supports a fair regulatory review by the Corps.

Dunleavy’s leading challengers, Democratic candidate Les Gara and independent candidate Bill Walker, said on Monday that while they support mining, they oppose Pebble because of its threat to the fishery. They said they are in favor of the EPA veto process.

“The governor is one of the last men standing in Alaska who supports this project,” Gara said. “If I had my druthers I’d use state power to stop it, and if the governor won’t do anything, we have no choice but to ask the feds to step in, so he has put us in an awkward position.”

“I am anti-Pebble,” Walker said. “I love mining, but this is the wrong mine in the wrong place.”

Dunleavy’s opposition to the EPA process is shared by U.S. Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan, who have said the EPA proposal is the wrong way to stop the mine, and could set a precedent that harms other resource development in Alaska. But both senators, also Republicans, have also come out in opposition the mine.

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Alex DeMarban

Alex DeMarban is a longtime Alaska journalist who covers business, the oil and gas industries and general assignments. Reach him at 907-257-4317 or alex@adn.com.

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