Pebble Waits, Frustration Grows

Pebble Partnership CEO John Shively has maintained for years that his company will submit its application soon.

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“Well, we’re still working on that,” he said by phone Tuesday morning. “I do really think that there’s a better than even chance that we will submit our permit application later this year.”

The EPA should release its final watershed assessment for the mine site in the next couple of months. Shively and the mine’s backers fear the EPA could veto the mine outright – before the company submits its permit application – because of harmful affects to salmon habitat.

If it does not, the company could try to win approval with the Army Corps of Engineers.

Senator Mark Begich, like the entire Alaska delegation, said the company should have a chance to apply for a permit. The federal government could rule out the mine then, but he said the EPA should not use its authority to prohibit the permit process.

Still, he said the Pebble Partnership has gained a competitive advantage by waiting so long.

“What I always hear from the industry is ‘We just need to know what the agencies are going to require us to do. Ok? Well in Pebble’s case, you’re going to know before you pull a permit,” he said last week. “That’s not a bad position if you’re a mining company. Now you have an option to say: ‘now I know what they’re going to require me to do.’ You can say, does this meet our economic ability?'”

The Pebble Mine could be one of the world’s largest. Developers hope to extract gold, copper and molybdenum. The Pebble Partnership touts the copper for future renewable energy projects.

But opponents of the mine, including many local tribal governments and the Bristol Bay Native Corporation, worry it will destroy the salmon habitat crucial to both commercial and subsistence fishing.

They petitioned the EPA to veto the mine using its so called 404c authority. Its draft watershed assessment said the mine would destroy dozens of miles of streams.

Wayne Nastri reviewed the assessment for the Bristol Bay Native Corporation.

“And I found that its conclusions are sound, and if anything, conservative,” he told a House oversight panel last week.

Nastri, regional administrator for the EPA during the George W. Bush administration, consults for BBNC and has worked with Trout Unlimited in the past.

“The watershed assessment identifies significant adverse affects to the fishery, and is a key trigger for 404c action. EPA has the opportunity to provide clarity and certainty to those who live and work in the Bristol Bay region by initiating such action,” he said in prepared remarks.

Certainty is something that everyone wants: from local fisherman to the Pebble Partnership to legislators in D.C.

Senator Lisa Murkowski fired off a letter to Shively last month telling him to hurry up, that it’s in his company’s best interest to submit its application.

She didn’t say whether she thinks the mine is a good investment.

“When you think about development of Alaska’s resources – our oil up north, our fisheries, our timber. I think we can look historically to some actions and development proposals that we’re not exactly proud of in our state,” she said.

She ticked off a list:  near decimated fisheries, clear cutting in the Tongass National Forest, legacy wells in the NPR-A.

“There may have been a time when you could not build a dam, a tailings pond like Pebble is talking about, without it impacting the watershed,” she continued. “I happen to believe we’re pretty smart nowadays. Our technology has come a long way.”

The mine would be on state land. And that’s where Don Young comes in. To Alaska’s lone Congressman the issue isn’t about fish or metals or money. It’s about state rights.

“If EPA comes in with this decision says the mine can’t get developed on state land, we have lost our state totally,” he predicted. “There will be nothing done in that state: No more mining, no more drilling. It’ll be lawsuit after lawsuit after lawsuit.”

Young said both the mine and fishery can thrive can coexist in one of the poorest regions of Alaska. There are some 14,000 fishermen in Southwest Alaska.

“It’s an amazing thing people say they can’t [coexist]. That’s wrong. I believe this very strongly. Look at the Copper River king. Why do they call it the Copper River king?” he asked.

He answered his own question – because of copper. He said mining near Cordova never disrupted the King Salmon runs on the Copper River.

Pebble CEO John Shively said he hopes to meet with the new EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy to make his pitch.

pgranitz (at) alaskapublic (dot) org  |  202.488.1961 | About Peter

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