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EPA administrator McCarthy making visit to Alaska

Posted: August 26, 2013 - 1:14pm  |  Updated: August 27, 2013 - 12:05am

JUNEAU — The administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said Monday that her first trip to Alaska in the post is about learning and listening.

Gina McCarthy plans to discuss issues involving climate change, air quality and a proposed mine near the headwaters of a premier salmon fishery during this week’s visit to communities across the state.

On Monday, she was at the Portage Glacier in south-central Alaska to survey the impacts of climate change. The glacier, which the U.S. Forest Service says has advanced and retreated over time, due to climate fluctuations, has generally retreated over the past century.

McCarthy said in a phone interview that climate change is a serious concern, and the glacier provides a visible way to understand the change. McCarthy, who was confirmed by the U.S. Senate last month, said she is interested in how Alaskans view the issue of climate change “so we can work together on solutions.”

She said climate change is both an environmental challenge and an economic opportunity. Actions can be taken that can grow the economy in ways that are sustainable and innovative, she said.

McCarthy also plans to visit the Bristol Bay region to meet with tribes, fishermen, industry representatives and others about the proposed Pebble Mine, and to Fairbanks to discuss air quality issues.

EPA is studying the impacts of large-scale mining in the Bristol Bay region, an effort that arose from concerns that were raised about development of a large copper-and-gold prospect there. A revised watershed assessment, released earlier this year, found construction of a large-scale mine in the region could have major impacts even without a mishap.

EPA has said it expects to have the report finalized later this year, and the results could affect permitting decisions for the mine.

John Shively, CEO of the Pebble Limited Partnership, the group behind the mine project, has called the EPA assessment flawed and unnecessary. He is expected to join McCarthy on a flyover of the region Tuesday, Pebble spokesman Mike Heatwole said.

Pebble hopes to at least convey to McCarthy its general approach to coexist with the fishery, its desire to have its project evaluated once permits applications are filed, and to stress the studies that Pebble has done and the economic benefits a project would bring, he said. Pebble is still shooting to file for permits with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers before the end of this year, he said.

McCarthy said that while she’s hoping to get some feedback from those she meets with about the EPA review, “to me, I’m trying to establish a relationship here. I’m trying to make people, convince them that EPA is working with them and that we’re going to get the science right and then decisions will follow.”

In Fairbanks on Wednesday, she plans to meet with the mayor and others about community efforts to address air quality concerns. She cited a program that provides incentives for Fairbanks North Star Borough residents to have cleaner-burning stoves for winter heat.

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