Empire editorial: EPA must be unbiased in study of Bristol Bay watershed

President Ronald Reagan had it right with his joke about the most terrifying words in the English language being, “Hi, I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.”


This may or may not true in the case of the Environmental Protection Agency’s plans to study the Pebble Mine project. Opponents had pressed the EPA to veto the project under the Clean Water Act even though no permits have been filed by the Pebble Partnership. The EPA will study the Bristol Bay Watershed and says its study will look at broader issues of large-scale development in the region. The study would likely be the main tool the EPA uses when approving or rejecting future developmnent in the Bristol Bay area.

EPA intervention in Alaska’s affairs usually adds up to a stifling of our ability to develop our natural resources and a de facto taking of those resources through actions that coined the now popular term “federal overreaching.”

Offshore oil leases in the Beaufort Sea can’t be developed by Shell Oil due to a refusal to grant some permits. ConocoPhillips was recently denied a bridge on the Colville River needed to access and drill into its remote land.

And then there’s the question of drilling in ANWR, which makes knees jerk all over Washington, D.C.

The Pebble Mine, however, is a huge undertaking. It would be the largest open pit mine in North America. It sits near salmon spawning streams and the fish that breed there are crucial to the Bristol Bay fishing fleets.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s caution that any EPA review process must be “transparent and unbiased” and based upon science has much merit.

A fair and accurate study of the region should be welcomed by all sides in the Pebble issue, if for no other reason than it will provide more scientific data on the area.

That will only be the case if the EPA finds unbiased scientists to do the study — and that agency has a serious credibility problem among those who wish to actually develop natural resources.

Mining is a vital part of Alaska’s economy. Pebble could provide not just jobs, not just gold, but copper and molybdenum — essential minerals used in the manufacture of modern products.

As the world’s population grows and resources become scarce it is vital to our national interests that America provide for itself as much as possible the minerals it needs. Canada, China, Chile, Mexico, Peru, Russia and Mongolia are listed by the Mineral Information Institute as the leading molybdenum suppliers, although there are significant deposits in Colorado, New Mexico and Idaho as well. That mineral is used in many ways, including as an alloy bonded with steel to create high-heat products like furnace parts.

We shouldn’t allow a mine to be built in Alaska if it will poison Bristol Bay. We also shouldn’t slam the door on the project due to scientific unknowns. Perhaps the EPA can provide some answers.

That the EPA didn’t summarily move to stop the Pebble project is a sign that the agency may provide a serious and useful analysis of the Bristol Bay watershed. Here we’ll have to subscribe to the theory of positive pessimism, wherein we may expect the worst outcome but will be delighted should the best occur.


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