WASHINGTON -- Members of Congress from across the Lower 48 convened Thursday to argue the fate of the Bristol Bay watershed and the proposed Pebble mine project, with some Republican lawmakers framing the Environmental Protection Agency's actions to block the project as a sign of larger bias and anti-industry environmental aggression in the agency.
But the fate of the massive gold, copper and molybdenum deposit in Southwest Alaska remains unknown, despite more than a decade of discussion, scientific and legal review and ongoing intervention by the agency's opponents in Congress.
Chairman of the House Science and Technology Committee Lamar Smith, R-Texas, who held a hearing Thursday, has taken the side of Pebble in the dispute as part of an ongoing effort to reveal alleged anti-business biases of EPA employees.
"Science and due process should lead the way, not predetermined outcomes by activist EPA employees," Smith said at the hearing.
EPA Region 10 administrator Dennis McLerran testified that he felt the process was fair and noted that Pebble has never applied for a permit.
Rep. Bruce Westerman, R-Arkansas, questioned the EPA's transparency and said the agency "stacked the deck behind the scenes" against Pebble mine. And he said what seemed to be lurking under the hearing's surface: "Whether there's a mine in Alaska, I don't really care about that. But what I do care about is if you'll screw people over in Alaska or Colorado, you'll screw them over in my state as well."
For now, the only mining going on is of paperwork, and Thursday's meeting just added to the pile.
Pebble Limited Partnership remains entrenched in a lawsuit in which it hopes to prove that the EPA's watershed assessment of Bristol Bay should have followed the rules of the Federal Advisory Committee Act. The mine's supporters and the EPA's independent inspector general rooted through employees' emails (though many remain missing). The EPA dug into 1.1 million comments submitted in response to its twice peer-reviewed watershed assessment, which the agency used to propose closing off parts of the watershed to large-scale mining like Pebble wants to do. (The agency has not issued an official final decision in light of ongoing litigation.)
The clear intended highlight of Thursday's congressional hearing was what the science committee unearthed in its deposition of Phil North, a hard-to-reach retired EPA employee who was off traveling the world with his family when mine supporters started questioning his role in the agency's efforts to stop the mine.
On Wednesday night the committee, which subpoenaed North, released the 249-page transcript of his deposition on the committees' website, with names of staffers who interviewed him blacked out.
And at the hearing Thursday, Republican lawmakers on the committee took turns presenting portions of the interviews with North, each with a new slide on large screens in the hearing room.
But for all the rooting and reading, the committee appeared to come up short in the search for a smoking gun.
Chairman Smith and other Republicans on the panel argue that the agency should not make decisions about potential Army Corps of Engineers permits before Pebble applies for the permit. That's a rhetorical fight, however. A federal appeals court ruled several years ago that the Clean Water Act gives the agency the right to use its "404(c)" permit "veto" authority at any point in the process. That authority has been used rarely -- 13 times in the last 44 years.
And the committee members argued that North -- as he testified in his deposition -- supported blocking the mine, and thus the decision is untenable. They pointed to North's admission that he and a colleague discussed the 2012 presidential election, though North said there was no agency effort to rush the decision in case a new executive took over at the White House and the EPA.
In response, Democrats on the committee pushed their own paper.
During the hearing, Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, D-Oregon, submitted a copy of North's official job description, which included outreach and aid for local tribes.
And she shared a copy of an email exchange between North and anti-mine activists in which he provided editing advice on a petition to the agency. EPA opponents have cited North's willingness to help edit the petition as evidence of his bias.
North's edits of the 12-page letter included suggestions to add 16 words, delete three, a corrected spelling and removing an extra space, Bonamici said. North testified in his deposition that he felt it was his duty to provide feedback "when someone comes to me and they want help petitioning the government," a statement highlighted by majority committee members.
Rep. Don Beyer, D-Virginia, submitted a copy of a years-old letter from Sen. Lisa Murkowski in which she expressed frustration with and detailed a decade of promises from Pebble that they planned to file for a permit soon.
Rep. Mark Takano, D-California, submitted a copy of the 1979 Federal Register notice that outlined EPA's process for blocking a federal permit like it has proposed to do for Pebble. And he provided a copy of a 1988 decision to preemptively block a permit under President Ronald Reagan's EPA.
The committee's ranking member, Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Texas, submitted to the record a letter from Texas hunters and fishermen opposed to the mine. Smith countered that the group was headed by a millionaire anti-mine activist, and Johnson quickly quipped, "you like rich people."
And Johnson also released a report Thursday on the potential impacts of the mine, condemning the "public relations war" waged by Pebble Partnership and detailing decades-past transgressions of Pebble's chairman and CEO, dubbed "ethical scandals" by the report.
The report linked to emails from federal and state agency officials who were in contact with mine officials in an effort to show that the agency's employees don't only speak to environmental and tribal groups.
In the audience were anti-mine advocates from the Bristol Bay region, including high school junior Triston Chaney, 17, and Alex Tallekpalek, 38, of the United Tribes of Bristol Bay. Both were part of the latest D.C. visit for mine opponents.
They submitted their own paper to the committee. In a letter to Smith and Johnson, the United Tribes of Bristol Bay, Nunamta Aulukestai and the Bristol Bay Native Corp. invited all members of the science committee -- which they said is "fixated on EPA's action to protect Bristol Bay," to visit the region. In person, the members will "better understand the fundamental threat to our salmon and ways of life posed by the proposed Pebble mine."
"If EPA and the Pebble mine and everybody else has to drag us out here" to Washington, D.C., then they can come to Bristol Bay, Tallekpalek said.
Tallekpalek, whose nickname is "Skipper" and who is close to securing a commercial fishing permit after years of work, worries that an investment of more than $100,000 would be lost if the mine were to threaten the fishery. He points to dam failings at other mines and wonders whether the disasters that have happened elsewhere wouldn't happen there too.
"I think the reason that people stay in these small villages is because of all the resources" for fishing and hunting, Chaney said in an interview. "I feel like if all that gets destroyed, everyone will start leaving, because then there'll be nothing to do here," he said.
Dan Cheyette, an attorney for the Bristol Bay Native Corp., expressed frustration with the House hearings, which he said are less about the Pebble mine and more about an ongoing fight with the EPA.
"This is real for the people of Bristol Bay, so they will keep coming back," Cheyette said. "But it is in our view a waste of everyone's time" and a "distraction."
Correction: This story previously misidentified congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson, of Texas, as a Republican. She is a Democrat.