Share

Opinion: Columnists

Behind Alaska's Pebble Mine controversy is a hidden-influence whodunit

By |
Ron Arnold,Columnists,Environment,Interior,Energy Department,Alaska,Climate Change,Analysis,Pebble Mine,Mining

Six federally recognized Native Alaskan tribes and commercial fishing interests started what may well prove to be Big Green's biggest ballyhoo ever with a May 2010 letter to the Environmental Protection Agency against the proposed Pebble Mine -- a huge prospect of copper, gold, and molybdenum near the vast salmon runs of Bristol Bay.

Pebble Limited Partnership, the mining company, saw the letter as a call for EPA to use Section 404(c) of the Clean Water Act -- the rarely used "preemptive veto" hammer -- that could block mine development before its plans were submitted.

Robert Dillon, spokesman for Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, told me, "the Senate's concern as I see it is the question of due process. That is a very serious problem."

EPA responded to the tribes' letter with an unprecedented and controversial "assessment" of an imaginary mine at the Pebble site, unfairly stuffed with every disaster imaginable to blemish the project. Then the agency held a spate of shamelessly rigged hearings on the fairy-tale report, followed by a mixed peer review of the nonexistent mine's assessment.

Kill Pebble was the most lavishly funded Big Green campaign I know of, with activists on a paid junket to a Pebble investor meeting in London; a snooty Washington reception with former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor; chefs in upscale restaurants preparing Kill Pebble Alaska salmon dinners; EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson chumming around Alaska with mine haters; and Mike Kowalski, CEO of Tiffany Inc., with a $250,000 grant from Tiffany Foundation to Trout Unlimited to stop Pebble.

Now, House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., wants to know who made this mess and who stirred up all that hoopla. Issa invited recently retired EPA biologist Phil North to a transcribed interview -- North told a local reporter he pushed the preemptive veto idea inside EPA. North is a sixth-rank employee of EPA's Office of Wetlands, Oceans, and Watersheds in the remote Kenai facility.

I noticed that the tribes' 2010 letter said they wrote "with assistance of counsel." Who was that counsel? One signature reads, Geoffrey Y. Parker, attorney in Anchorage. So I spoke to him by phone. He said I was the first media to call him since Issa started asking about the tribes' letter. After an hour of talk, I was fairly certain that Parker was at the forefront of the 404(c) strategy.

Parker doesn't like to say he was the spark. "Everybody who works with water issues knows about 404(c) and always has," he told me, "so it's unseemly to say one person started the 404(c) effort."

Parker has been a Trout Unlimited member, as well as counsel. His client list is a Who's Who of Alaska conservation. In 2007, he and other attorneys looked at 404(c) with clients, but pursued other efforts at that time. In 2008 he coauthored a law review article on Pebble that mentioned 404(c).

He worked from September 2009 to May 2010 to perfect the tribes' letter, asking North about technical points on 404(b)(1) Guidelines, which are the convoluted instructions for using 404(c) -- they'd known each other for 20 years, and North had worked on regulating mines for much of that.

I'm convinced that the extraordinary letter Parker wrote for the tribes is what got EPA's Washington leadership moving with 404(C) against Pebble Mine. North worked on the assessment, but my bet is that Issa won't find anything more from any transcribed interview.

I have good reason to believe that the real people who stirred up all that hoopla are far above Parker and North's pay grade. Chairman Issa, now is the time to, as the maxim goes, follow the money.

In 2008, two years before Parker and the tribes' electrifying letter, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation gave nearly $3 million to Alaska groups for purposes they described as, "Pebble mine campaign coordination," and $766,000 more in 2010, according to their Form 990 reports. Moore gave activists two years to pressure EPA in preparation for Parker's and the tribes' letter.

Chairman Issa, you should be interviewing the program officers of the Moore Foundation. Ask them what the blazes they think they're doing to our strategic mineral reserves.

Washington Examiner columnist Ron Arnold is executive vice president of the Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise.

View article comments Leave a comment
Author:

Ron Arnold

Columnist
The Washington Examiner