Residents (again) comment on Pebble
The Environmental Protection Agency recently dispatched staff to listening sessions in Dillingham and Iliamna before a public comment period closed Oct. 17. At stake is whether or not the EPA should withdraw its proposed dredge and fill restrictions that would likely block a Pebble Mine preemptively.
Those restrictions, drafted under the Obama administration, were scuttled when Trump's EPA agreed to settle a lawsuit by allowing a return to a normal permitting process. That lawsuit, known as the "FACA case", alleged EPA staffers colluded with anti-mine activists to initiate the Bristol Bay watershed assessment and Section 404(c) Clean Water Act restrictions. U.S. District Court Judge H. Russel Holland found enough evidence to Pebble's claims that he stopped the EPA from finishing their work until the lawsuit was resolved. The case dragged along till the clock ran out on Obama's time in office. EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt promised in his confirmation hearings that he would return the agency to a normal course of business and stop allowing the EPA to pick winners and losers outside of the rule of law.
Many Bristol Bay residents turned out to tell the EPA they felt like they were now the losers. The disappointment in the agency's backpedal was palpable Wednesday in Dillingham.
"This withdraw is a threat to me and my people and our very existence as a people of this land," Anuska Wysoki from Koliganek testified. "We know, everyone knows, that Pebble Mine will annihilate our homeland and its resources. It's common sense," she said.
In Dillingham, no one stood to speak in favor of the withdrawal. Over the course of nearly four hours, most spoke from the heart about a love for the region's resources and way of life, and a fear of ruining the ecosystem with copper and gold mining.
"If we lose our fish, we're going to lose everything. My children, and their children's children's children will never get a chance to do what I've done," said David Nicholson, a setnet fisherman from Dillingham.
Many others shared similar thoughts with the EPA staff who listened intently and took notes. Others addressed the number of jobs the commercial and sport fishing industries support.
The Pebble deposit is on state lands set aside for mineral development. The company recently unveiled a new concept for a smaller 20-year mine situated within the drainage of the North and South Fork Koktuli Rivers. Tom Collier, Pebble's CEO, is on a mission to reintroduce the project as something that can be done smaller, safely, and with the benefits of jobs, contracts, cheap power, and dividends to the region. He has pledged to file for permits this year.
Pebble opponents pleaded with the EPA not to abandon their earlier effort, and not to wait for an Environmental Impact Statement.
Katherine Carscallen, a commercial drift-net skipper from Dillingham, has long supported the federal intervention.
"Our state permitting process is not equipped to consider the long term impact of Pebble's 'phase one' plan, which is what I consider it, but the domino effect of the mining district this would bring. That's why 404(c) allows for proactive decision, and there's no better place to apply this than Bristol Bay," she testified.
"My people here rely on this resource and be damned if we're going to see that mine happen," H. Robin Samuelsen thundered. "You guys better stay the 'Environmental Protection Agency' and not 'empty promises to America.'"
The following day the EPA staff traveled to Iliamna for a second listening session. Opinions offered there were mixed, as some industry representatives, Pebble employees, and nearby residents spoke in favor of a fair process and the jobs Pebble might provide.
"I'm very grateful that I have a job, that I can put food on the table, pay bills, have private insurance, get what my kids need and want ... and the best part is I don't have to get up and leave my community to go to work," Margie Olympic from Iliamna told the EPA. She said she has worked for Pebble since 2006.
Lorene Anelon, the president of Iliamna Natives Limited, said the village corporation owns 69,000 acres near the proposed mine site. She asked the EPA to withdraw the proposed restrictions.
"Do not assume it is because we are for Pebble," she said. "INL and [Iliamna Development Corporation] know that the 404(c) Clean Water Act was forced on us by tribes and EPA. The problem we see with EPA consulting with tribes is that tribes do not own land. ... When EPA tried to implement the 404(c) Clean Water Act, they took away our say in our own property. We can make good decisions for our own land, and we don't need the federal government to create more unwanted regulations."
Deantha Crockett, the executive director of Alaska Miners Association, told the EPA it had been "inappropriate" to attempt the preemptive Pebble veto and asked the agency to withdraw it.
"This only puts us at a starting line, the chance to apply in the first place and begin the review of a mine plan. This is not the mine moving forward. Investors bringing jobs to Alaska must have the assurance that after spending significant amounts of money a plan will be reviewed objectively and according to science and law," Crockett said.
Another Pebble employee pointed out the company had hired 41 people from eight villages during the summer field work season. Those jobs were part of why Raymond Wassillie from Newhalen asked the EPA to let the process unfold normally.
"The reason why is I don't want to make that decision for the kids of the future. Because it'll be their time to step up and justify what they want to do," he said.
Others at the Iliamna pleaded with EPA not to back down from using its authority now to protect the ecosystem.
"Our renewable resources like fish, game, and anything gathered from our land and water is both culturally and monetarily important to me, my children, and my community," said Renae Zackar from Igiugig, who said she had cried tears of joy when she first learned of the EPA's proposed restrictions.
The public comment period closed Oct. 17.
Administrator Scott Pruitt was addressed off and on through the hearings, mostly negatively by Pebble opponents who criticized his quick reversing of the agency's earlier efforts after a short meeting with Pebble's CEO, as documented by a recent CNN report. Pruitt's two predecessors, Gina McCarthy and Lisa Jackson, both traveled to Bristol Bay themselves. So far neither Pruitt nor any EPA staff have granted requests for interviews.
On Tuesday, the EPA confirmed that Chris Hladick has been tapped to head the Region 10 office in Seattle. Hladick, a former city manager in Dillingham and Unalaska, is currently Gov. Bill Walker's commissioner of Commerce, Community, and Economic Development. If confirmed, and amongst many other duties, Hladick will oversee the EPA's evaluation of Pebble permits and any further work on the Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment or proposed 404(c) determinations. Hladick had not responded to requests for comment by this paper's deadline Tuesday.