Will EPA veto Pebble? Boss of agency says it’s not his call

Alaska’s U.S. senators have a word with EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler, right. (Photo by Liz Ruskin/Alaska Public Media)

Protesters stood outside the Dena’ina Center Tuesday. Inside, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency addressed a luncheon sponsored by the Resource Development Council. EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler spoke of easing regulations on industry. He talked about hot-button issues, like narrowing the definition of wetlands and chemical pollutants in drinking water.

He didn’t say a word about the hottest Alaska conflict facing the EPA: the proposed Pebble Mine, the project that draws protesters to nearly every relevant forum.

For over a decade, Bristol Bay fishing communities have been campaigning against the proposed gold and copper mine, though some Alaskans, including villagers closer to site, say they’d welcome the jobs.

In the latest turn on Pebble, the publication E&E News reported last week that political staffers at EPA headquarters watered down the concerns raised by scientists in the regional EPA office about the adequacy of the environmental review of the proposal.

The EPA is in a powerful position. It has the right to veto Pebble’s application, even if the Corps of Engineers wants to greenlight the mine.

But the head of the EPA says the decision won’t be his. Wheeler used to work at a law firm hired by Pebble, so he needs to avoid the appearance of a conflict.

“So far, you all are the first people to have raised Pebble to me,” he told reporters at the Dena’ina Center. “But if people do raise it, I just explain that under my ethics recusal with the agency, which I abide by, I can’t discuss Pebble mine.”

How the EPA decides whether to exercise its veto power is something mine developers and opponents are watching closely.

Wheeler left the decision to the EPA’s top lawyer, who Wheeler says is working with the agency’s Region 10 administrator, Chris Hladick. Hladick is an Alaskan who has worked in commercial fishing towns. Mine opponents worry he, and the scientists at Region 10, will be steamrolled.

EPA Region 10 Administrator Chris Hladick is Alaska’s former commissioner of Commerce. He previously worked as a city manager of Unalaska and Dillingham. (Photo: Liz Ruskin/Alaska Public Media)

Hladick says a team of 40 staffers worked on the document reviewing the Pebble environmental impact statement, and he says nothing out of the ordinary occurred.

“Anything that you do at the EPA comes with consensus of headquarters,” he said.

Region 10 was still able to produce a long document finding fault with the environmental statement on the mine.

“Yeah, 170 pages of comments,” Hladick said. “They’re pretty substantial.”

EPA’s critique hit home with at least one key player: Sen. Lisa Murkowski says the document Region 10 issued has her doubting that the environmental review of Pebble’s plan has been sufficiently rigorous.

“This is substantive,” she said of the criticism. “This is considerable. And it needs to be addressed. And if it can’t be addressed, there shouldn’t be a permit that issues.”

Wheeler was supposed to speak Wednesday at the Kenai Classic Roundtable in Soldotna but a spokesman said he had to cancel due to fire-related transportation concerns.

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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