The Pebble Project is a proposed copper mine about 15 miles from my hometown of Iliamna in southwestern Alaska. The Pebble deposit contains one of the world’s largest discoveries of copper, and if the proposed mine secures more than 60 different regulatory approvals from about a dozen state and federal agencies, the project would create about 2,000 construction jobs and 1,000 permanent positions. For permitting, the developers will have to prove to regulators the project will not harm the surrounding environment, including Bristol Bay’s sockeye salmon population.
The Pebble Partnership has invested $120 million so far on environmental and socioeconomic studies that will be used to develop a formal permit application, which regulators will spend three to five years reviewing. But that’s not good enough for the national environmental groups who oppose the Pebble mine. Instead, they want the EPA to take the unprecedented and probably unlawful step of using Section 404 of the Clean Water Act to preemptively veto the project before any permit applications can be filed. The EPA appears to be following those marching orders, because in May the agency issued a draft report stating that a copper mine in the Bristol Bay Watershed would likely harm salmon populations. If the draft report is finalized, the EPA could then veto all mining activity in the region.
The State of Alaska is deeply troubled by this potential EPA power grab, as the Pebble site is located on state-owned land that’s been set aside for mineral development. The EPA’s draft report is essentially a literature review that contains no new or on-the-ground scientific research conducted as part of the assessment. Without a permit application, the EPA made up its own mine plan, assuming environmentally harmful technologies and practices “from the late 1800 and early 1900s” – historic examples that do not apply directly to a modern mine under current regulations , according to Alaska’s Department of Natural Resources. The draft report presents a “biased picture of only adverse impacts of a hypothetical mine,” and key sections “start with conclusions, and then subsequently follow with facts that support the conclusion,” which is “inappropriate for a scientific document developed by a regulatory agency.” But of all the State of Alaska’s criticisms, this was perhaps the most revealing: “No reference to, or consideration of, winter freezing or permafrost is provided in the risk assessment.” That’s right – the EPA wrote a report about Alaska and forgot the part about winter.
That basically sums up the entire debate. The EPA, environmental groups, commercial fishing interests and tourism operators care only about 2-3 months of the year. When the long winter comes, the seasonal industries leave, and the economy of southwestern Alaska shuts down. The region’s per capita income is $15,000 a year. Worse, our remote location results in sky-high living expenses – gasoline is $8-9 a gallon and milk costs even more – so the poverty rate exceeds 20 percent. The teen suicide rate is devastatingly high, and our villages are slowly dying as more of our young people move away. If the Pebble developers can prove to regulators that a large-scale mine and commercial fishing can co-exist, it could provide year-round jobs our communities desperately need. We have pleaded with EPA officials to back off and let the developers succeed or fail within the regular permitting process, but they won’t listen.
This isn’t just an Alaskan problem. Annually, about 60,000 construction projects nationwide, from mines to roads to shopping malls, depend on Section 404 permits. A preemptive veto in Alaska would cast a huge cloud of regulatory uncertainty over $220 billion of economic activity when the nation is struggling to create jobs. Worse, if the preemptive Section 404 strategy works in Alaska, environmentalists will use it elsewhere. The National Wildlife Federation is already targeting the Great Lakes Watershed, which takes in a huge swath of the industrial Midwest. It’s time for Congress and the White House to stop this madness in Alaska before it spreads to the rest of the country.
Reimers is president of IDC, a contractor that supplies transportation for fuel and freight for the villages of Iliamna, Kokhanok, Nondalton, Port Alsworth and Newhalen, Alaska. The Pebble Partnership is one of IDC’s customers.