This week, the House Natural Resources Committee held yet another hearing about the controversial Pebble Mine proposed at the headwaters of Alaska’s Bristol Bay. Although the Republican-led hearing was ostensibly about the “appropriate role of NEPA in the permitting process,” it was really just another attempt by Canadian-based mining company to present itself as a victim in what it considers an unfair process by EPA to place restrictions on waste disposal from the proposed mine.
At issue is a proposal, issued by the EPA in July 2014, to use its authority under Section 404(c) of the Clean Water Act to restrict mine waste disposal in the headwaters of Alaska’s Bristol Bay to protect the nation’s largest and most valuable wild salmon fishery.
Tom Collier, CEO of Pebble Limited Partnership, claimed that the EPA’s use of the Clean Water Act was unfair, and the Pebble project should undergo NEPA review first. But here’s the rub with that argument. The company could have submitted its permit application at any time over the last decade – automatically triggering the NEPA environmental review process – and chose not to.
“Again, all Pebble has to do is file a permit application and it can have the NEPA process it appears to want so badly,” said Kimberly Williams at the hearing. She is the executive director of Nunamta Aulukstai, which represents ten Alaska Native Tribes and village corporations.
Year after year, Pebble claimed it would file its permit application, and year and year it failed to do so. After years of uncertainty, Alaska Native Tribes, corporations and commercial fishermen petitioned the EPA in 2010 to take proactive steps under Section 404(c) of the Clean Water Act to protect the salmon fishery that is the economic engine for the region. The EPA did so, and it based its decision on a lengthy scientific assessment.
In her testimony, Kim Williams challenged Pebble's assumption that Alaskans should wait for the mining corporation to set the agenda: “What we hear when you hold a hearing like this that it would be far better for us to be silent and wait until Pebble files for a permit to press our case. But better for who? The people of the region or for Pebble?”
Pebble also claimed at the hearing that the EPA doesn’t have the statutory authority to use Section 404(c) to proactively protect the fishery. Yet, the statute is clear. Section 404(c) authorizes EPA to prohibit, restrict, or deny the discharge of dredged or fill material whenever it determines, after notice and opportunity for public hearing, that use of such sites for disposal would have an unacceptable adverse impact on fisheries, wildlife, municipal water supplies, or recreational areas.
As the sole proponent of the mine, it’s not surprising to see Pebble challenge the EPA. What we can’t understand is why the House Committee continues to waste time with repeated hearings to promote the interests of a Canadian-based mining corporation, rather than standing up for the Alaska citizens that took lawful proactive steps to protect their lives and livelihoods – and our nation’s greatest salmon fishery.