Congress pushes EPA on giant Alaska mine

Republicans in Congress hope to stop the Environmental Protection Agency from blocking the gigantic Pebble open pit mine in Alaska, proposed for one of the last places left on the globe to support huge runs of wild salmon.

EPA opponents in the House of Representatives held the first congressional hearing over the proposed copper and gold mine Thursday as the contentious issue gains increasing national attention.

“A pre-emptive veto by EPA would set a dangerous precedent and could have a chilling effect on similar projects throughout the nation,” said Georgia Republican Rep. Paul Broun, who chaired the science and technology subcommittee hearing. “Investors would be wary of funding projects if they believed that a federal agency could just say no at any time prior to permit applications.”

The EPA says it has the power under the federal Clean Water Act to stop the Pebble mine or impose strict conditions on its development. But the agency hasn’t decided whether to use that authority, EPA spokeswoman Alisha Johnson said Thursday in an email.

The mine is proposed for Alaska’s Bristol Bay region, which produces about half the world’s wild red salmon. Johnson said it is an “area of national interest,” and new EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy is considering a visit as the agency weighs the mine issue.

Thursday’s congressional hearing was stacked in favor of the mine. Three of the four people chosen to testify are opponents of the EPA’s review.

The hearing was the latest move by congressional Republicans to pressure the EPA not to block the mine, including a June letter from five Senate Republicans saying the EPA is abusing the process.

An EPA study released in April says the mine could wipe out nearly 100 miles of streams and 4,800 acres of wetlands in the Bristol Bay region. The EPA did the study in response to concerns raised by Alaska tribes and others about the potential impact on salmon. A final version of the study is expected by the end of the year.

The EPA said the work is based on preliminary Pebble mine plans submitted to federal and state agencies. That includes a report that developer Northern Dynasty Minerals filed in 2011 with the federal Securities and Exchange Commission. Congressional Republicans slammed the EPA for using a “hypothetical” mine for its evaluation instead of waiting for a final plan.

A consultant for Northern Dynasty Minerals told the subcommittee that the EPA study is an exaggeration.

“It is an alarmist portrait of a hypothetical mining project that could never be permitted in Alaska,” said Michael Kavanaugh of Geosyntec Consultants, an engineering firm.

But Wayne Nastri, a former regional administrator for the EPA under George W. Bush, argued the Obama administration’s EPA is doing the right thing. He urged the subcommittee to consider that the agency is using documents provided by the mine developers. Nastri is consulting for the Bristol Bay Native Corp., an opponent of the mine.

He said the EPA’s “conclusions are sound and, if anything, conservative.”

Congressional Democrats spoke against the mine at the hearing, saying the Bristol Bay region can support fishing jobs and salmon indefinitely while the mine would leave just waste behind.

“Consider what the future generations might think of us,” said New York Democratic Rep. Dan Maffei.

Democrats are applying their own pressure. Five Democratic senators from the West Coast wrote the president in June and said the proposed mine is an economic threat to the seafood industry.

Broun, the Republican who chaired Thursday’s hearing, said he has “serious questions about how a mine can co-exist with fish in Bristol Bay.”

But he said the EPA shouldn’t stop the mine before developers are ready to submit their plans for it.

Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski last month called on Northern Dynasty and fellow developer Anglo American to get moving and submit their plans for the mine. Murkowski opposes an EPA veto of the mine but said delays in getting specifics from the companies are contributing to confusion and frustration.

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