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“Lawmakers probe whether EPA staffer planted seed for watershed assessment”

According to an article in E&E Newswire this week, Republicans on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee are probing whether a former U.S. EPA staffer’s intervention helped lead to calls for a pre-emptive veto of key permits for the Pebble mine. You can read the article here with a subscription, or our re-posting below:

Lawmakers probe whether EPA staffer planted seed for watershed assessment

Manuel Quinones, E&E reporter
Published: Monday, August 12, 2013

Republicans on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee are probing whether a former U.S. EPA staffer’s intervention helped lead to calls for a pre-emptive veto of key permits for the controversial Pebble LP copper and gold mine in southwestern Alaska.

EPA has for years been conducting a watershed assessment of the potential risk of a large mine in the Bristol Bay region, home to a valuable salmon fishery.

“We launched the study in response to petitions from federally recognized tribes and others who wrote to EPA with concerns about how large-scale mining could impact Bristol Bay fisheries,” the agency has said.

But an article published last month by a small Alaska newspaper has drawn increased scrutiny to the origin of agency intervention in the Bristol Bay area.

A profile on former EPA staffer Phil North by The Redoubt Reporter suggests he may have had some involvement in pushing for action against the mine, including promoting a Clean Water Act veto.

“It really takes an exceptional situation for it to be used,” North told the publication. “But when I started talking about it with people, almost everybody said, ‘If there’s any place this should be done, it’s Bristol Bay,’ because there’s no place on Earth like Bristol Bay. It really is the last of the great places for salmon.”

Oversight panel Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), chairman of the Economic Growth, Job Creation and Regulatory Affairs subpanel, dispatched letters late last month to EPA and North asking for more information.

“Due to a recently published newspaper interview with Phil North, a staff member in the Alaska Operations Office of EPA Region 10, more questions have been raised concerning EPA’s decision to invoke a [Clean Water Act] veto for the Pebble Mine,” said the letter to newly installed EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy.

“Moreover,” the lawmakers wrote, “the article appears to assert that Mr. North was the originator of the idea to use a prospective veto for the potential mine.”

EPA has not said whether it will move to block all or parts of key Clean Water Act permits for the mine, but it has kept the options on the table. Pebble has yet to submit permit applications for mining.

“I don’t expect EPA to come in and just say, ‘No mine.’ It’s possible, but I don’t expect that,” North told the newspaper. “What I think they’ll do is take the assessment and they’ll pull out the things where the state of practice won’t address all the issues, and they’ll put restrictions in that will have to apply to any permit to any mine in that area.”

Issa and Jordan’s letter to North asked him to get in touch with the panel by today for a transcribed interview. An Oversight spokeswoman said staffers are already working with him on scheduling a time.

The Bristol Bay and the Pebble mine debate has been intensifying among lawmakers in Washington, D.C. The House Science, Space and Technology Committee probed the issue just before the summertime congressional recess.

And during a recent hearing of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, ranking member David Vitter (R-La.) asked EPA water chief nominee Ken Kopocis about the agency’s spending on the assessment.

“Mr. Kopocis, so on the issue of Pebble Mine,” Vitter said, “we’re also very, very troubled by this pre-emptive watershed assessment which is completely unnecessary, not mandated by the law. How much money has EPA spent to date on this pre-emptive watershed assessment?”

Kopocis responded, “Senator, my understanding is that the agency through earlier this year has spent approximately $2.4 million in external costs. I do not know of an estimate of internal cost to the agency.”

The issue doesn’t split cleanly along party lines, however, with some Republicans feeling pressure from conservation and fishing groups that worry about a mine’s impact on Bristol Bay.

GOP Reps. Jaime Herrera Beutler and David Reichert, both of Washington, asked EPA in letters earlier this year to take their concerns into account.

“As you complete your final Watershed Assessment, I urge you to take into account the concerns of the men and women in my region and the importance of Bristol Bay to the viability of Washington State’s fishing economy,” Reichert wrote.

 

Original article by Manuel Quinones, E&E Newswire.

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