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Battle over Pebble Mine shifts to EPA

August 3, 2010 |  8:11 pm


Tribal leaders who are battling plans for Pebble Mine, a $300-billion copper, molybdemum and gold deposit at the headwaters of Bristol Bay--home of the world's biggest sockeye salmon runs--are appealing now to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for help.

But already, Alaska's only congressman is hoping to block that exit.

Though the mine under study by the Pebble Ltd. Partnership lies on state lands--and Alaska has always been eager to promote natural resource development--opponents are hoping to persuade the EPA to exercise its veto power under the federal Clean Water Act.

In talks with EPA administrator Lisa Jackson during her visit to Alaska last week, native tribal members who depend on the healthy salmon stocks at Bristol Bay urged the EPA to invoke Section 404(c) of the act, which authorizes the agency to prohibit or restrict the discharge of dredge or fill material, such as metallic sulfide mine wastes, into waterways when there will be an "unacceptable adverse impact" on fisheries, wildlife, municipal water supplies or recreational areas.

This section of the law allows the EPA to override any permit issued by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the historically more development-friendly agency that oversees federal dredge and fill permits.

But wait! U.S. Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) is diving to shut the door. A new billhe introduced July 30, two days after Jackson's visit to Dillingham, Alaska, seeks to eliminate the EPA's power to veto in such cases.

In a press release, Young says his aim is to remove "a level of bureaucracy" from the permitting process.

"The Corps of Engineers is a very efficient and effective engineering and management agency that is more than capable of making decisions regarding permitting without being second guessed by an agency that has no real interest in resource or infrastructure development," the congressman said. "Projects in Alaska have been shut down or delayed time and time again by the EPA.... These types of projects are important to the safe development of our natural resources and should not be bogged down in politics."

Geoffrey Parker, an Anchorage attorney who has worked with the six federally recognized native tribes that drafted the letter of petition to the EPA, said the tribes are appealing to the federal agency as sovereign entities on a government-to-government basis. Download tribes' letter to EPA on 404(c)

He said a public process over the EPA's authority under 404(c) could theoretically explore more than simply the mine operators' ability to contain acid mine drainage at the mine site. "For example, even if you could have permits and designs that protect all of the fish and wildlife habitat, can you still protect subsistence [hunting and fishing] from the effects of the large population increase [that would result from construction of the mine]?" he said. "That's how you get basically to the big picture."

It's not clear that the EPA would be in a hurry to muscle in and block the discharges. The agency infrequently uses its veto power under Section 404(c). Indeed, in a similar, long-fought battle over plans to discharge mining wastes into a lake from the proposed Kensington gold mine near Juneau--a fight that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court in 2009--the agency declined to veto the permits under 404(c). The Corps of Engineers gave the go-ahead.

Coeur d'Alene Mines Corp. announced June 24 that Kensington had finally begun initial production. The company said it expects to produce 125,000 ounces of gold a year over the mine's initial 2.5-year life.

--Kim Murphy

Photo: Pedro Bay, on the northeastern end of Lake Iliamna, near the proposed Pebble Mine site. Credit: Luis Sinco, Los Angeles Times