Congress Delves into EPA's Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment

Yesterday, the House Science, Space, and Technology Subcommittee on Oversight held a hearing to discuss  EPA's Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment.  Released in April 2013, EPA’s assessment found that large-scale open pit mining (such as the proposed Pebble Mine)  would threaten the Bristol Bay watershed and its famous wild salmon fishery, wiping out 90 miles of streams and 4,800 acres of wetlands even if no accidents or failures occurred. 

The Congressional hearing was stacked in favor of the mine.

Three of the four people chosen to testify oppose EPA’s assessment and support Pebble Mine—Lowell Rothschild, senior counsel at Bracewell & Giuliani LLP, Dr. Michael Kavanaugh, senior principal at Geosyntec Consultants, and Daniel McGroarty, president of the American Resources Policy Network. Wayne Nastri, co-president of E4 Strategic Solutions and former Regional Administrator of EPA’s Region 9, was the sole pro-EPA witness invited to speak.  

Yet, those in attendance couldn't escape the feeling that Pebble Mine is simply a bad idea.  As Congressman Dan Maffei noted: "Consider what the future generations might think of us."

Industry witnesses stuck to the stale line that "modern engineering and design" will save Pebble Mine from the same fate as the 135 case studies of tailings dam failures from open-pit mines around the world cited in the assessment. They also presented a convoluted and distorted understanding of the National Environmental Policy Act ("NEPA"). Contrary to industry claims, a project is not entitled to review under NEPA before it can be rejected by EPA under the Clean Water Act.  Rather, NEPA is designed to ensure that projects involving major federal action are not approved before a thorough environmental review.  Furthermore, EPA has the full legal authority under a separate statute -- the Clean Water Act -- to prohibit or restrict activity where it is likely to cause “unacceptable adverse effects” on local fisheries, waters, wildlife, and recreational resources. Under that statute, EPA has the clear legal authority act “whenever” it determines unacceptable adverse effects – before, during or after permit applications. 

American Resources Policy president Daniel McGroarty stuck to a familiar industry refrain emphasizing the importance of copper both during the hearing and last month in the Wall Street Journal -- an argument neatly countered by Nunamta Aulukestai Executive Director Kimberly Williams in a compelling op-ed published yesterday in the Alaska Dispatch.

Wayne Nastri, a former regional administrator for EPA under George W. Bush, was the lone voice of reason on the witness list. He testified that EPA’s assessment is not based on a hypothetical mine plan, but rather documents filed by the mining companies themselves with both the State of Alaska and the SEC.  According to Nastri, EPA's "conclusions are sound and, if anything, conservative."  He urged EPA to “fulfill the Congressional mandate to protect our nation’s waters” by invoking its legal authority under Section 404(c) of the Clean Water Act to protect Bristol Bay.  EPA has been asked by the people and tribes of Bristol Bay to protect the area from large scale mining like the proposed Pebble Mine.

Throughout the hearing, Congressional members enumerated the risks that the Pebble Mine poses to the Bristol Bay region and beyond--to the economy, the environment, and subsistence ways of life. Congresswoman Susan Bonamici of Oregon and Congressman Derek Kilmer of Washington amplified the concerns of their many constituents who rely on the salmon fisheries for their livelihoods and expressed their support for the sound science put forth in the Assessment, which concludes that large-scale hard rock mining cannot coexist with salmon fisheries.  (Similar concerns have been voiced in the Senate.  Last June, five west coast senators sent a letter to the president explaining the detrimental impacts the Pebble Mine would have on the $1.5-billion-a-year seafood industry in Bristol Bay and beyond—economic activity that is vital to their states’ and constituents’ wellbeing.)  

My favorite part of the hearing was a question from Congresswoman Bonamici: She described the devastation in Papua New Guinea caused by the Panguna Mine, and then asked the witnesses whether everyone could agree that we don’t want this to happen in the Bristol Bay watershed.  Only Wayne Nastri agreed; the other three remained silent. 

Bristol Bay -- and its famed runs of wild salmon that support a $1.5 billion commercial fishery, a subsistence-based native culture, and vast array of wildlife -- is no place to experiment with one of the world's largest open-pit mines.  Despite the best attempts of the mining industry -- using state of the art engineering for the time -- modern mines can and do leak.  Accidents happen, even under rigorous federal and state permitting and monitoring requirements.

Pebble Mine is an accident waiting to happen -- and we cannot allow it to happen in Bristol Bay.

You can find the full audio of the hearing here. And you can take action to stop the Pebble Mine here