Pebble Opponents, Proponents React To EPA Decision

The EPA’s announcement today was directly targeted at the Pebble Mine. The developers of that project are understandably not pleased with what they say is a gross overreach of federal authority which should be concerning to all Alaskans.

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Mike Heatwole is vice president of public affairs at the Pebble Limited Partnership:

“The initiation of this 404 process is indeed unprecedented; it’s unprecedented federal action, and clearly has far ranging implications beyond Pebble,” Heatwole said.

To date, Pebble has spent more than half a billion dollars studying the environment and developing mining scenarios. They say they understand the importance of Bristol Bay salmon and don’t expect to get permitted if their mine can’t co-exist with the fish habitat. What they do expect is a chance to play by long established rules.

“The strength of the US system, and what attracts foreign investment is the ability to work your way through a very prescribed process. And that is not what has happened here,” Heatwole said. “This is well outside the established process, because we have not yet filed an application to develop the prospect at Pebble.”

Alaska Congressman Don Young says the EPA is setting a dangerous precedent that has nothing to do with Pebble Mine. In Young’s view, the federal government is stepping on the state’s authority over its own land to such an extent it threatens what it means to be a state at all.

“We could possibly lose utilization of any of our other state lands, wherever there was a watershed period, by some interest group saying, ‘No, this can’t be done,’ Young said. “And that goes for airports, schools, any type of activity on any of our state lands. That could occur.”

Likewise, U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski said in a written statement today that if the EPA action is allowed to stand, it’ll threaten development across Alaska, and anywhere in the nation.

Sen. Mark Begich is the only member of Alaska’s federal delegation who has come out against the mine. He said today he’ll be watching to make sure the agency doesn’t overreach, but Begich says the EPA is acting within its rights so far.

“My concern is going to be that they don’t have a broad sweep, and the way I understand this effort they’re doing is a very narrow focus on that Pebble Mine deposit and therefore not affecting any other mines in the region or any other type of development,” Begich said.

Begich says Pebble can continue to work on its permit applications. As he sees it, the EPA isn’t exercising a veto as much as it’s drawing up a list of requirements the mine will have to meet to discharge into wetlands.

The Alaska Native, sport and commercial fishing, and environmental groups who have led the charge against Pebble were cautiously optimistic following Friday’s long-awaited announcement.

Kim Williams is the executive director for an association of Bristol Bay tribes and village corporations known as Nunamta Aulukestai. She is among those who’ve specifically asked the EPA to issue 404c protections to block Pebble’s development out of concern that the state agencies would rubber stamp the project:

“It was our last hope. They need that one permit, to put the dredge and fill somewhere up in that mine area, and it will impact water,” Williams said. “That was our only recourse, to go to EPA.”

That today’s announcement didn’t close the book on Pebble wasn’t lost on the mine’s opposition. Robin Samuelson, one of the tribal leaders who signed the 2010 request asking the EPA to intervene, says they are ready and able to keep up the fight:

“We’ve been in this battle for fourteen years. If it lasts another twenty, I’ll be there,” Samuelson said. “And if I’m gone, my grandchildren will be there. We’ll never give up the fight.”

Liz Ruskin is the Washington, D.C., correspondent at Alaska Public Media. Reach her at Read more about Liz here.

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