Alaska editorial: Murkowski right to press Pebble for a plan

This editorial first appeared in the Anchorage Daily News:

Sen. Lisa Murkowski wrote to the Pebble partnership last week urging release of a specific plan for its gold and copper prospect in the headwaters of Bristol Bay salmon streams.

Without it, the senator wrote, the Pebble Limited Partnership is contributing to uncertainty, anxiety and frustration among Alaskans.

She’s right.

The Pebble project is a joint venture of Northern Dynasty Minerals LTD and Anglo American PLC. The partnership, headed by former Alaska natural resources commissioner John Shively, was set up to design, seek permits, build and run the operation.

Murkowski is right because the Pebble partnership can’t have it both ways. On the one hand, they’ve touted the economic and job benefits of what could be the largest gold and copper mine in North America, arguing that we can have both world-class salmon runs and world-class mining in the same region. That argument implies they have a plan.

On the other hand, they’ve criticized the Environmental Protection Agency’s Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment as invalid because they say there’s no plan to assess.

The contradiction is obvious. It won’t wash.

Further, the EPA’s mining scenarios were based on information published by Northern Dynasty. They weren’t fantasy.

Shively has said a plan remains in the works, but that Pebble’s goal is to get this project right, and that takes time. Granted. But how much time?

In the meantime, Alaskans need to keep our focus on this question first:

What’s the risk of this project to one of the greatest fisheries and wilderness areas on the planet, and is that risk worth it?

The EPA has been trying to help us answer that question, and has done so in the apparent absence of any state interest in doing an independent assessment of risk. So far the agency has been methodical and transparent in its work, open to criticism from both the public at large and from rigorous peer review. The agency has been doing its job, and doing one requested by Alaskans — who wanted EPA to kill the project by invoking a clean-water rule.

Instead, the EPA has responded with an assessment that will have taken several years when all is said and done. Later this year the agency will release its final report, and only then decide on any action. Let’s see what it concludes.

As we’ve written before, Alaska should have a tough, clear-eyed policy on Pebble. With so much at stake, the Pebble partnership bears the burden of proof, without the benefit of the doubt, on all the questions involved, from the health of the fisheries to how Alaskans stand to gain by the mine.

The sooner we have a specific plan from Pebble, the better Alaskans will be able to judge the partnership’s ability to meet that burden of proof.

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