ANCHORAGE — Two minutes at a time, the Environmental Protection Agency heard directly from Alaskans how they feel about the agency’s proposal to block Pebble mine development.
At an Aug. 12 public hearing in Anchorage, 133 attendees testified before EPA Region 10 Administrator Dennis McLerran and Bristol Bay Management Lead Richard Parkin about the unprecedented use of the agency’s Clean Water Act Section 404(c) authority to ban a project before permit applications are filed if it determines there would be an adverse affect on fish and wildlife habitat.
Meeting attendees were greeted by opponents of the proposed Southwest Alaska copper and gold mine at the Egan Center doorways who offered them cutouts of sockeye salmon in spawning colors and anti-Pebble stickers. The stickers far outnumbered the smattering of “Pro Process” buttons and “Hands off Alaska” labels.
Inside, state officials, Bristol Bay residents and Pebble executives mingled while they waited for the meeting to begin.
McLerran began the five-hour hearing with a prepared statement that outlined EPA’s 404(c) goal.
“The information our scientists gathered and analyzed in the watershed assessment made clear that the extraction, storage and treatment activities necessary to profitably mine the Pebble deposit pose significant risks to the fragile, unparalleled ecosystem that produces the greatest salmon fishery in the world,” he said.
McLerran continued: “Our proposed determination would restrict all discharge of dredged or fill material related to mining the Pebble deposit on mining claims surrounding the deposit owned or controlled by Northern Dynasty Minerals and the Pebble Partnership.”
EPA’s restrictions would apply only to development of the Pebble, he said.
The Anchorage public hearing kicked off a series of seven such meetings the EPA scheduled through Aug. 15, with the other six held in Bristol Bay communities.
The entire public comment period, which runs through Sept. 19, is the second major step in the 404(c) process, which was started in February and should take about a year, EPA officials have said.
On July 18, the EPA issued its specific site proposal to ban any mine project that would have an estimated impact on salmon rearing habitat in the area near the Pebble deposits northwest of Iliamna equivalent to one-eighth the size of what the agency projects a Pebble mine would be.
The projection is a result of the fact Pebble Limited Partnership has yet to release a mine plan — a source of contention for opponents who say the group has not been up front about its proposal for a large surface mine.
Mike Heatwole, a spokesman for Pebble, said in an interview the group was “very close” to issuing a mine plan when 50 percent investor London-based Anglo American Plc backed out of the project last September. At the time Pebble leaders said they would not issue a formal plan until another investor was secured.
Heatwole said Pebble is still attracting interest from prospective investors despite the EPA actions.
Pebble CEO Tom Collier and Alaska Attorney General Michael Geraghty were given five minutes to speak before McLerran and Parkin at the outset of testimony. The state and Pebble have joined in a lawsuit against the EPA claiming the agency is denying the state its right to develop its resources on state-owned land.
“I think this hearing is much more about show than substance,” Collier said.
He called it “ludicrous” that the agency would hold public hearings on the Pebble 404(c) Proposed Determination roughly three weeks after releasing the 214-page document. The interim period was not nearly enough time for adequate review, he said.
In addition to the pending litigation and 404(c) process, a preliminary review of the crafting of the Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment — the document that is the basis for the mine ban — is being done by the EPA Inspector General’s office.
With more than 30 years of experience dealing with environmental issues, McLerran said in an interview the Bristol Bay work “is probably the most open, transparent process I’ve been a part of.”
While Collier said it is “misleading” to say the proposed mine ban applies only to Pebble, Geraghty said the state’s voice is being wrongfully excluded from the Pebble discussion.
“Our state is legally entitled to be a part of (the review) process,” he said.
He added that the state hopes some type of mine can be safely developed on the Pebble deposits to provide year-round employment to a region with thousands of seasonal fishing jobs.
Trout Unlimited Alaska Director Tim Bristol said in an interview that the EPA is completely within the law.
“Collier is wrong and we’re going to find that out,” Bristol said.
Sen. Cathy Giessel, R-Anchorage, claimed that EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy has prioritized “the animals and not the people of Alaska.”
Roughly 60 percent of the Bristol Bay commercial drift fleet permits are held by Outsiders, she said, which means a large chunk of the hundreds of millions of dollars generated by the commercial fishing is not benefiting the region.
“If your goal is to make our state a park, it’s working,” Giessel said to Parkin and McLerran.
Sue Aspelund, executive director of the Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association said that the region is a “model” for sustainable fisheries worldwide — without a mine.
The 404(c) process is the only definitive way to protect the upwards of 30 million or more sockeye salmon that return to Bristol Bay each summer and the way of life that revolves around the fish, she said.
The EPA shouldn’t stop with Pebble either, according to Aspelund.
“We expect that EPA would take similar actions should similar mines (in the region) be proposed,” she said.
Pebble’s Heatwole said in an interview that “Alaskans ought to be asking which project is next.”
Elwood Brehmer is a reporter for the Alaska Journal of Commerce. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.