Secretary Cohen Cries Wolf on Pebble Mine - Again

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Former Defense Secretary William Cohen recently analyzed EPA's actions to protect Bristol Bay, critiquing a report released by EPA's Office of Inspector General that found "no evidence of bias" or predetermination in how EPA conducted its Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment -- a three-year, twice- peer reviewed scientific study on the potential impacts of large-scale mining on Bristol Bay's world-famous wild salmon fishery.

This is the second time Secretary Cohen has waded into the Pebble Mine debate. His group, The Cohen Group, released a report last October -- paid for by the Pebble Limited Partnership -- that critiqued EPA's review of and proposed action with respect to the Pebble Mine. Not surprisingly, Secretary Cohen found that EPA's actions were "not fair" to his clients.

NRDC issued a detailed response to Secretary Cohen's first report, documenting that his criticisms of EPA were unfounded both as a matter of fact and law.

Secretary Cohen's most recent analysis of EPA's Inspector General's report contains similar flaws:

  • Independence - In his October 2015 report, Secretary Cohen acknowledged that he was hired and the report paid for by the Pebble Limited Partnership, the proponent of the proposed Pebble Mine. He does not indicate who paid for his most recent analysis, noting only that he was asked by the Chairman of the United States House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space, and Technology to respond. In contrast, EPA's Office of Inspector is funded by Congress separately from EPA to ensure its independence from the agency.
  • Mandate - EPA's Office of Inspector General performs "audits, evaluations, and investigations of EPA and its contractors, to promote economy and efficiency, and to prevent and detect fraud, waste, and abuse." The Cohen Group, on the other hand, is a for-profit consulting group that provides "strategic advice and practical assistance" to its clients.
  • Transparency - EPA's Inspector General's report clearly outlined its methodology and identified the emails it reviewed and people that were interviewed. In contrast, the Cohen report contained only very general statements about its methodology and included a few selective emails. The Cohen report claims to have interviewed "more than 60 individuals", yet identified only three of those people by name. The report's failure to disclose the names and affiliations of its interviewees suggests that this group may have been skewed in favor of mine development and opposition to EPA.
  • Scope - Secretary Cohen criticized EPA's Inspector General's report for being narrower in scope than his October 2015 report. Yet the Inspector General's report addressed the exact issues that both the Pebble Partnership and State of Alaska asked it to. For instance, attorneys for Northern Dynasty Minerals -- now the sole investor in the Pebble Partnership -- wrote to the EPA Inspector General claiming EPA's Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment was "scientifically indefensible and biased" and asking the Inspector General to "investigate whether [EPA] violated the Information Quality Act ("IQA"), EPA's own IQA policies, and EPA's risk assessment and peer review policies."

Similarly, the Alaska Attorney General requested that the EPA Inspector General conduct "an investigation of the EPA's preparation of the Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment" because it was "likely tainted" by "bias" raising "serious questions about the scientific and technical integrity of the document."

The Inspector General's report investigated those questions in its report, which examined "whether the EPA adhered to laws, regulations, policies, and procedures" in developing its Watershed Assessment, with a specific focus on whether EPA acted "in a biased manner or had predetermined its outcome." And it flat out rejected those allegations, finding "no evidence of bias."

For these reasons, Secretary Cohen's most recent analysis critiquing the EPA Inspector General's report is not persuasive. Like his 2015 report, it should be ignored.

(Photo credit: Robert Glenn Ketchum)