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Policy: Environment & Energy

New evidence points to former EPA official pushing pre-emptive Pebble Mine veto

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Watchdog,Watchdog Blog,Environment,Alaska,Energy and Environment

When it comes to a controversial proposed copper and gold mine near Alaska's Bristol Bay, the Environmental Protection Agency long has insisted that it is assessing, not regulating. At least not yet.

The EPA has repeatedly said it has no plan to pre-emptively veto the mine proposal via a regulatory hydrogen bomb at its disposal in the Clean Water Act -- certainly not while the agency is working over its much-disputed assessment of a theoretical large-scale mine's impact on the Bristol Bay Watershed.

EPA officials for years have also claimed native Alaskan tribes asked the agency to conduct the study.

"We launched the study in response to petitions from federally recognized tribes and others who wrote to EPA with concerns about how large-scale mining could impact Bristol Bay fisheries," EPA has said.

Those assertions may ring hollow after a seemingly benign profile on a former EPA official appeared in the Redoubt Reporter, a community newspaper serving Alaska's Central Kenai Peninsula. The publication has become a subject of interest for a Republican-led investigation into the EPA's assessment and its expansive powers.

Phil North, who served as an ecologist with the EPA in Anchorage and Kenai, "advocated for a comprehensive approach to protection of the area, rather than mine by mine," the Redoubt reported.

"The more he studied the area, the more he thought EPA should utilize its authority under section 404(c) of the Clean Water Act to limit or prevent mining activities in the Bristol Bay area," the story states.

"It really takes an exceptional situation for it to be used. But when I started talking about it with people, almost everybody said, 'If there's any place this should be done, it's Bristol Bay,'" North told the newspaper.

The veto power, used only 13 times in the past 40 years, prohibits, restricts or denies discharge of dredged or fill material at defined sites because the sites would have an "unacceptable adverse impact on one or more of various resources, including fisheries, wildlife, municipal water supplies, or recreational areas."

Pebble Limited Partnership, the development initiative of London-based Anglo American and British Columbia's Northern Dynasty Minerals, proposes developing the mine, a multi-billion-dollar capital investment that would create thousands of good-paying, short-and long-term jobs, according to PLP.

The would-be developers say they have spent tens of millions of dollars on environmental impact studies of the Bristol Bay region, located about 200 air miles southwest of Anchorage. They have not offered an official plan to regulators.

And that fact has supporters of the project and advocates of due process furious that the EPA could drop 404(c) without a fair hearing.

The possibility that the push to kill the Pebble project pre-emptively came from inside the EPA has Republicans fuming.

"Regardless of where it came from, the issue is that EPA would even consider vetoing a project before it's proposed," Robert Dillon, Republican spokesman for the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, told Watchdog.org Thursday. The committee chairman is Sen. Lisa Murkowski. The Alaska Republican has opposed any pre-emptive effort by the EPA to veto the mine.

"This is an area the size of West Virginia -- which is not federal land, it's state land. Almost as big as Wisconsin," Dillon said. "If they can do this in Alaska, why couldn't they do this in Wisconsin?"

Dillon said the former EPA employee's comments do raise questions.

"They have said all along they weren't going to veto it, that they hadn't made up their mind, it wasn't a pre-drawn conclusion ... It appears they were asked to come in and veto it," he said.

An EPA spokeswoman declined to speak on the record but pointed to a letter EPA sent to the House's Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, which is conducting an investigation into the agency's Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment.

The committee has been seeking a transcribed interview with a recently retired EPA employee -- reportedly North -- regarding his work on the environmental assessment.

In the Aug. 15 letter, EPA Associate Administrator Laura Vaught reminded committee chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., of how cooperative she believes the the agency has been in the investigation, including releasing more than 35,000 pages of documents for review.

Vaught asked Issa to give the EPA more time to meet the committee's July 29 request for documents associated with North. The EPA, "recognizes" the committee's "authority to conduct oversight of government activities," Vaught said.

Perhaps the committee's name gave the EPA official that impression. But she seems to balk at the committee's latest request.

"We do, however, believe that the committee should stay any request to subject the former employee of the EPA to a transcribed interview until after the committee has pursued and exhausted other, more traditional oversight tools," Vaught said.

"As is the case with requests for transcribed interviews with current government employees, the EPA believes that the committee should give the agency an opportunity to provide the committee with the documents requested for the first time in your most recent letter, and reevaluate the necessity of a request for a transcribed interview after reviewing the requested documents," Vaught said.

In the Redoubt Reporter story, North said Bristol Bay Native tribes, Native corporations and commercial fishermen petitioned EPA to pursue the pre-emptive veto, and that's what really got the ball rolling,

"Really, it probably wouldn't have happened without the tribes writing the letter. When the tribes did that, it really got the managers' attention. EPA takes tribal sovereignty very, very seriously," North said. "I think the tribes are really responsible for EPA making the decision to do the assessment," he said.

The EPA has said it intends to issue the final Bristol Bay assessment by the end of the year. Pebble Limited Partnership officials could not be reached for comment.

M.D. Kittle is a reporter for Wisconsinreporter.org, which is affiliated with Watchdog.org and the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity.

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