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EPA's Bristol Bay assessment was rushed, inadequate

John Shively
Eric Adams photo

As long‐time proponents of responsible resource development in Alaska, we have significant concerns regarding the EPA’s approach to the Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment. We believe that the EPA has rushed its assessment process, and that this is especially problematic in light of the large size of the study area. We have taken several years and expended considerable resources to study the ecosystem in a small area around the Pebble deposit, while the EPA has, in only one year and with limited resources, completed a draft assessment in relation to an area of approximately 20,000 square miles. We believe that this explains why the EPA’s work has not yet approached the level of rigor and completeness required for a scientific assessment.

Furthermore, we are concerned that the EPA may use this rushed process as the basis for an unprecedented regulatory action against the Pebble Project. We believe it would be unprecedented and entirely inappropriate for the EPA to take steps to stop our project before it has been fully designed, before we have presented an environmental mitigation strategy designed to protect the fish and water resources of the area, before we have completed an economic benefits study and before we have submitted a permit application and started the rigorous permitting process. Until we complete our work and submit an application under NEPA, the EPA’s work as it relates to our project is based entirely on speculation.

The Pebble deposit is located on State of Alaska lands that are open to mineral exploration and development. As such, the State has expressed strong objection about the entire process the EPA is undertaking in this area. At statehood, the federal government granted Alaska access to lands in order to develop an economy for the new state. Federal intrusions such as those facilitated by the EPA’s watershed assessment initiative clearly strike at the heart of the agreement between the state and the federal government, and could have a chilling effect on future resource development investments in Alaska.

Further, this entire process is particularly disappointing because it seems to directly conflict with the stated goals of President Obama, who has said that U.S. government agencies need to simplify and streamline permitting and regulatory processes to help the economy and create jobs. This is an example of the Environmental Protection Agency doing exactly the opposite by adding new hurdles to the rigorous and established regulatory process.

It is worth noting that Pebble Limited Partnership has spent several years and expended significant resources studying a substantially smaller land area surrounding Pebble, while the EPA’s limited time frame allocated to studying natural resources in this vast area comes nowhere near providing the science needed to adequately conduct their assessment. We certainly don’t question the appropriate statutory role of the EPA in evaluating projects like the Pebble Project. In fact, we voluntarily provided over 20,000 pages of detailed environmental studies to the EPA to assist their understanding of this complex ecosystem and we are convinced the agency did not utilize the information in a meaningful way due to the artificial short time frame they have used to reach a conclusion. We do take strong exception to this misguided effort that steps outside of the well‐established regulatory process to rush through this watershed assessment to potentially reach pre‐ordained conclusions.

Additionally, the draft watershed assessment is fundamentally flawed for the following reasons:

  • The EPA has undertaken to study in one year a nearly 20,000-square-mile area in Southwest Alaska -- about the size of the states of Maryland and New Jersey combined -- that would need several years of diligent effort to achieve its stated goals.

  • The EPA has attempted to assess the effects of a project that has not yet been finalized or undergone the rigorous permitting process required by state and federal law.

  • The EPA has prepared and distributed a report that does not live up to the agency’s own standards for undertaking watershed assessments, as reflected in EPA guidance and assessment activities in other U.S. jurisdictions. Specifically, the draft report: relies on a hypothetical mining project with hypothetical environmental impacts; estimates impacts resulting from only one stressor source (i.e. mining), notwithstanding Region 10 policy to address environmental risks “in a comprehensive, holistic fashion”; reflects an unprecedented narrow focus on a single mining project and single policy option; and improperly adds economic analysis, and then in a biased fashion.

Many statewide business and trade associations as well as Alaska Native tribes and village corporations have expressed similar concerns and objections about the EPA’s actions and have asked the EPA to stop its work until a formal permit application is in front of the agency. The investment uncertainties created by the EPA’s short‐sighted actions have the potential to inhibit development projects not only throughout Alaska, but nationwide.

John Shively currently leads the Anchorage-based Pebble Partnership as CEO. He first came to Alaska in 1965 as a VISTA volunteer. What started as a one-year assignment turned into a career involved in the issues that have shaped Alaska -- both in the private and public sector. Shively worked with NANA Regional Corporations on the development of the Red Dog Mine and served most recently as Holland America Lines' executive in Alaska. He has served two governors and is a former commissioner of the Department of Natural Resources. Shively has been a trustee for Alaska Permanent Fund, regent at the University of Alaska and served on numerous boards, including the Resource Development Council, where he served as president for five years. In 2009, Shively received the Bill Egan award from the Alaska State Chamber of Commerce as their outstanding Alaskan of the year. Shively has also been recognized with the prestigious Denali Award from the Alaska Federation of Natives.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch. Alaska Dispatch welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.