EPA says Pebble may be riskier than study says, rekindling hope for mine foes

Opponents of the Pebble mine project rallied in Anchorage August 21, 2017. (Photo by Henry Leasia/Alaska Public Media)

The Environmental Protection Agency has weighed in once again on the proposed Pebble Mine, and it has mine opponents cheering.

In formal comments released Tuesday, the EPA says a draft report on the mine’s environmental impact lacks important information and likely underestimates the risk to water quality and fish habitat in the Bristol Bay watershed.

Longtime Dillingham fisherman Norm Van Vactor, CEO of the Bristol Bay Economic Development Corporation, always believed the professional staff at the EPA would see the holes in the draft report on Pebble. Still, he worried some voices might be stifled for political reasons. Even before he finished reading the EPA comments, Van Vactor could feel his faith restored.

“It’s a powerful statement,” Van Vactor said. “I think it’s a powerful indictment.”

The two primary federal agencies involved in Pebble’s application for a Clean Water Act permit are the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers. The Corps prepared the draft report looking at what impact the copper and gold mine could have on the environment. The EPA issued comments critical of that report. 

“I mean, it’s almost like we were singing off the same page,” said Pebble critic Rich Borden.

He used to manage environmental matters for mining giant Rio Tinto but he believes the Pebble mine is too risky. Borden said the EPA pointed out some of the same deficiencies he noticed in the Army Corps’ report.

“Lack of detail, the fact that it’s conceptual, and there’s a lack of engineering drawings or even sufficient design to tell what the impacts are going to be – that’s exactly the same thing I said,” Borden noted. “They seem (to be) very substantive, honest comments. “

Meanwhile, the mine developers are soldiering on. 

“Hey, you know, it’s Tuesday,” Pebble spokesman Mike Heatwole said.

The EPA’s comments haven’t disrupted Pebble’s work at the site. Heatwole said they’re doing wetlands-mapping of the proposed road corridor and plan to drill a dozen new holes for a groundwater study.

“There’s really nothing in their comments that come as a surprise to us,” Heatwole said. “And really the issue at hand is whether or not the issues highlighted by the EPA have been adequately addressed via the process, and if they have not, we’re confident the Corps will ensure this as they work toward finalizing the EIS for the project.”

The EPA provided pages and pages of recommendations for the Army Corps to improve its final environmental impact statement. The comments were signed by Chris Hladick, the EPA administrator for Region 10, which includes Alaska.

Chris Hladick, EPA Region 10 administrator (Photo by Wesley Early/Alaska Public Media)

In a second document issued by EPA Region 10, the agency concludes the project “may have substantial and unacceptable adverse impacts on fisheries resources in the project area watersheds, which are aquatic resources of national importance.”

A disagreement between EPA Region 10 and the Corps could be decided by higher-ups in Washington. In the meantime, mine opponents say they hope the EPA’s comments embolden Alaska’s congressional delegation to take a stand against Pebble. They’ve been targeting Sen. Lisa Murkowski. She chairs the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. She also chairs the appropriations subcommittee that decides the EPA’s budget.

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

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