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My Turn: An appeal to President Obama on the Pebble Mine

Posted: February 14, 2013 - 1:13am

Your second term provides an unparalleled opportunity to reconsider current energy and public lands policy, to develop policies which strike a fair balance between resource development and conservation, and to appoint people who are committed to job creation as well as sound environmental management. As a former United States Senator and Chairman of the Senate Energy Committee and Governor of Alaska I commend the Pebble Mine as an outstanding example of the need to reconsider existing policy.

I know that you agree that it is vital to create jobs in rural, minority areas based upon responsible resource development that does not impose unreasonable costs or risks to others, environmental or otherwise. Most would agree that we should not in any way trade the tremendous fishery resource of Bristol Bay for copper and gold. Both of these must be objectives of the Pebble Mine in southwest Alaska.

I am, however, indignant that EPA has sought to preempt the Congressional authorized permitting process and move ahead and conduct a watershed assessment that evaluates the impacts of a “theoretical” Pebble mine – created by EPA personnel alone using outdated and false assumptions. In its widely-panned draft of the watershed assessment, EPA concluded that there would be adverse impacts from such a mine on the Nushagak and Kvichak watersheds.

These watersheds cover 15 million acres of state land in western Alaska. For perspective, this represents an area the size of West Virginia and constitutes nearly 15% of the land Alaska received under the Statehood Act.

By its draft assessment EPA has already gone a long way towards pre-judging the area’s suitability for development under Section 404 of the Clean Water Act (CWA) before receiving an actual permit application – based upon an actual project description. In order to give any meaning to EPA law it is imperative that instead of using a hypothetical mine as its decisions basis without any input from the applicant, assessment should wait until there is an application for a CWA permit. This would trigger a National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) review which is the appropriate vehicle to use to evaluate the costs and risks of an actual project.

Because EPA’s action is unprecedented and not supported by the CWA for reasons given in the Attorney General’s letters of March 9, 2012 and July 23, 2012, neither the State nor potential mine operators have any idea of how it will be used in the future. Not only does EPA’s watershed assessment preempt the permitting process, thereby affecting the potential Pebble project on state land, but it could also adversely impact any number of other potential mines on land included in the assessment area.

The State selected these areas because of their mineral potential, among other reasons. The Area Plan prepared by the State allows mining. EPA’s assessment, however, has overridden the State land plan by casting a shadow over any potential mining on these lands.. For example, is the administration now planning to label the watersheds as an Aquatic Resource of National Importance (ARNI)? Even if the watersheds are not designated as ARNIs could any mine be permitted in the area of EPA’s assessment? And what about a situation in which a CWA Section 404 permit is needed for a wide variety of community infrastructure projects such as a runway for an airport?

If the 15 million acres of land subject to the assessment are made unavailable for development, it will not only be seen as a taking, it will have been de facto set aside for preservation by the federal government. That result would be fully inconsistent with Section 101(d) of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) by which Congress reserved to itself the determination of what lands are available for preservation and development and Section 1326 which provided that “no more” of Alaska would be set aside for conservation purposes then what was set aside by ANILCA.

This area of Alaska has traditionally been economically disadvantaged. Most residents rely on fishing and subsistence to make ends meet. The Pebble Mine, if permitted, could supply a significant number of jobs to these folks. Subsistence users and fishermen in Bristol Bay should have the opportunity for stable mining jobs while also knowing that the federal and state governments will ensure adequate environmental protection. The Red Dog Mine in northwestern Alaska has successfully supplied jobs and a cash economy in what had previously been another economically disadvantaged part of the State. None of this is taken into account in EPA’s draft watershed assessment, which represents another significant failure in the agency’s work to date.

Finally, preemptive closure of this area would deprive the country of materials required to pursue your renewable energy policy. The area is rich in the copper needed for wind turbines and solar panels. Copper is also needed to modernize the nation’s aging transmission system. Shouldn’t this copper come from mines in the United States that are subject to strict environmental laws and provide American jobs?

Mr. President, my request is a simple one: please withdraw the draft watershed assessment and let the NEPA and CWA Section 404 processes determine whether the project should go forward based upon the description of the project actually submitted by the applicant.

• Murkowski is a former Alaska governor.

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