GOP presses EPA on Alaska mine review

Oversight Republicans in the House are pressing the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) about a mine review in Alaska that they argue could spook energy investors nationwide.

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Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, and panel member Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) are demanding a briefing on EPA’s watershed impact tests for a proposed mine in Bristol Bay, Alaska, according to a letter obtained by The Hill.

The GOP lawmakers requested documents related to the tests in the letter, and set a deadline of Oct. 8 for the EPA to turn them over. They want a full transcript of a scientific review panel’s comments on an EPA draft report, as well as a transcript of a closed-door meeting between the panelists and agency officials.

“The unusually short amount of time in which EPA prepared the Assessment raises questions about whether EPA was more interested in reaching a predetermined conclusion than in conducting a scientifically valid review,” the lawmakers said in the letter to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson.

EPA has received the letter and is reviewing it, an official said.

At issue is the proposed Pebble mine, a project that could yield substantial amounts of copper, gold and molybdenum, which is used in alloys.

Alaskan state legislators, native tribes and commercial fishers are concerned the mine would disrupt Bristol Bay’s sockeye salmon population, which comprises 46 percent of the world’s supply.

They appealed directly to EPA to perform a watershed test to gauge the impact of the mine on the local ecosystem.

EPA responded by conducting a preliminary test using a hypothetical mine based on similar projects, even though a blueprint had not been filed.

The review panel is expected to publish a report on EPA's draft assessment this fall. That report is intended to inform the agency's decision on whether to issue a permit crucial to the Pebble mine.

Supporters of the project say EPA would be setting a dangerous precedent if it rejected the project before developers file a formal blueprint.

The National Wildlife Federation, for example, has said it would ask EPA for similar tests in the Great Lakes region to halt mining projects there.

Some of the panelists have questioned EPA’s tactics, and the mine’s backers say the scenario EPA used is unrealistic. That led Issa and Jordan to inquire about the “quality and accuracy” of the watershed test, the lawmakers said.

Pebble Limited Partnership CEO John Shively said he is concerned EPA is rushing the study. “No project in the history of our country has been put through this process,” Shively told The Hill. “We’re not even in permitting yet. This is new, no one has gone through this thing before and it has cost us $2 million just to respond.”

Opponents say Pebble Limited Partnership has dragged its feet since 2005, when Alaska opened 90 percent of the Bristol Bay area for mineral development. Rick Halford, a former Republican president of the Alaska state senate, said the developers are waiting for a “politically greased” situation to submit their blueprint.

Halford said the state dallied on doing its own watershed impact test for years, explaining it needed a formal mine application to proceed. He said Pebble Limited Partnership has refused to do so because it would reveal an environmentally unfeasible plan.

“This is the first time I have ever opposed a mine, and it is because of this particular mine in this particular place,” Halford said. “I am not one who thinks all mining is bad. This is an exception, and it is an exception beyond all our imagination.”

Shively said the complications of protecting Bristol Bay’s salmon and designing a mine explain the delay. He said Pebble Limited Partnership loses $100 million every year it sits on the sidelines. “If we’re going to do harm to this salmon population, it will never get approved,” Shively said.

“If we get through this process, there will probably be litigation. So the courts would get their crack at it.”