EPA Jumps the Gun on Mine Assessment

On Friday of last week the EPA released its long-awaited assessment of the potential effects of mine development north of Bristol Bay, Alaska. However, it was curious that the EPA began to study this issue in anticipation of a potential permit application for development of the Pebble Mine, an ambitious mining project that has been previously discussed at Resourceful Earth:

Last Friday the EPA released an assessment of the Bristol Bay watershed warning that a large-scale mining project such as Pebble would destroy salmon streams and wetlands.

“They normally get involved in a project when there’s actually a permit process under way with an environmental impact statement going on,” the governor said. “And so once again, I see the assessment as stepping into the state’s business before they actually have authority to do so.”

John Shively, president of The Pebble Partnership, said EPA’s assessment was rushed.

“We’ve been working on a small part of those watersheds for eight years, we spent $120 million and we’re not done, and they get through in less than a year. It doesn’t make any sense.”

Some Alaskan politicians — including Alaskan Governor Sean Parnell and Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) –  seem unhappy with the EPA’s involvement prior to applications for permitting:

The query makes it clear there will be a tough political fight over the mine, not only in the Obama administration, but in Congress, where Republicans have long been gunning for the EPA.

The main controversy at the moment surrounds the question of which federal agency has chief jurisdiction over granting a permit for the mine. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers by law issues dredging and filling permits for mines, and generally is inclined to approve them. But EPA regulations under the Clean Water Act give the agency the authority — hotly disputed — to veto discharges of dredged or fill material if it would adversely impact municipal water supplies, shellfish beds or fisheries.

The regulation says the agency can issue the veto even in cases — such as the Pebble mine area — where no permit has been applied for.

Presumably, the watershed assessment could be a first step in making such a determination, one reason the Alaska attorney general, U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and others have questioned the EPA about preparing it.

“I remain concerned that an attempt to preemptively veto the Pebble mine would have the practical effect of halting any development in the Bristol Bay area that might generate dredge or fill material,” Murkowski wrote in a recent letter. “It remains unclear to me how dredge or fill material from a mining operation might be substantively different from dredge or fill material generated from any other form of development.”

They are right to be worried. In recent years the EPA has made it clear that, likely due to political interests, they have no problem siding with radical environmentalists who are interested in leaving everything in the ground, ignoring the economic impact this will have on Alaska and the rest of the world as these deposits of gold, copper, etc. never make it to the market. Keeping U.S. mineral deposits in the ground also encourages mining in other, less wealthy, countries where environmental safeguards are often non-existent.

Furthermore, it appears that the EPA assessed a hypothetical mine based off of initial plans made public, rather than collaborating with the companies interested in the Pebble deposit:

It is based on a hypothetical mine scenario that the agency says draws in part on plans and data put forth by the Pebble Partnership.

Therefore, EPA acknowledges, it may not mirror the location and size of things such as a mine pit or tailings storage facility.

Due to lack to quantitative information on salmon, char and trout populations, the review could not quantify such things as the consequences of habitat degradation or loss on fish populations.

Pebble Partnership CEO John Shively in a statement called EPA’s review rushed and inadequate and said he was concerned it could be used as a basis for “unprecedented” regulatory action against the Pebble Project. He said Pebble spent years studying a much smaller area around the deposit while the EPA, with what he called limited time and resources, covered an area of about 20,000 square miles.

Use of the Clean Water Act to veto the mine prior to application would be yet another recent example of the Obama Administration’s demonstrated willingness to ignore the benefits of economic activity and support the environmental movement, who are coincidentally, pivotal to helping re-elect him. There was the Sackett v. EPA case, the blatantly political delay of the KeystoneXL Pipeline, and a U.S. District Court’s decision to strike down the EPA’s attempted veto of a mining permit that had already been granted. The last case is important because it deals with the same law that is relevant in the Pebble case, the use of the Clean Water Act to shut down potential mining projects that are permitted by the U.S. Army Corp. of Engineers.

Do not forget the recent EPA scandal over an administrator’s candid comments that his philosophy of enforcement was to “crucify” oil and gas companies similar to the way “Romans used to conquer little villages in the Mediterranean” (by slaughtering them). Finally, we have yet another EPA scandal which casts doubt on their ability to conduct independent assessments of mining projects like Pebble, reported yesterday by E&E news, which is unfortunately behind a pay wall:

The emails appear to substantiate industry claims that the Obama administration did not have enough scientific evidence to move ahead with the withdrawal, which was meant to protect the canyon and the Colorado River from uranium mining.

“My personal and professional opinion is that the potential impacts stated in the [draft environmental impact statement] are grossly overestimated and even that they are very minor to negligible,” NPS hydrogeologist Larry Martin wrote early last year, suggesting the document contains “confusion and obfuscation” to suggest a stronger impact.

“There are many legitimate reasons to be concerned about potential uranium mining operations in areas adjacent to the park, but adverse impacts to water resources is not one of those reasons,” Martin wrote.

All of the above mentioned happened in 2012, and the year isn’t even half over yet.

Praise the House Natural Resources Committee for unearthing these e-mails which confirm what many have expected: the Obama Administration is completely willing to fudge the science in order to please those who support his re-election campaign. Another e-mail states that “This is obviously a touchy case where the hard science doesn’t strongly support a policy position,” yet the Obama Administration took a clear position — banning uranium mining. Another e-mail states that “Probably the best way to ‘finesse’ this would be fall back on the ‘precautionary principle’ and take the position that in the absence of even more complete certainty that there is no connection between uranium mines and regional ground water, we need to be [cautious]?” Change the word “finesse” to “lie” and you can see what is going on here, inventing reasons to stop resource production. We will have another post dedicated solely to this topic soon.

It is not clear that the EPA can be trusted to produce legitimate scientific documents to provide an objective look at mining and natural resource production. As we have discussed previously, there is a valuable salmon fishery in Bristol Bay that needs to be protected as it provides a significant portion of salmon to the world and a number of jobs to Alaskans. The key question is the extent to which a mining project (which is many miles away) might have negative impacts on the salmon fishery. It is important that the EPA provides an objective evaluation, rather than starting their assessment with the opinion that these activities cannot co-exist. Let us hope they take a common sense approach to the Pebble mining project once applications are applied for, and will refrain from issuing a preemptive veto.




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