EPA Gets it Right for Alaska – Here’s Why

The LA Times recently published an inflammatory and inaccurate perspective about the Pebble Project. While they dedicated significant editorial space for their unbalanced report, they have not been receptive to a response. For broader perspective, PLP CEO Tom Collier explains why the EPA’s decision to reject a preemptive veto was the correct decision for Alaska:

One of the reasons Alaska sought statehood in the 1950s was to reject the notion that “outsiders” should dictate decisions about what was best for Alaska. There was a strong feeling in Alaska that many in the rest of the country did not fully understand what life was like in Alaska and that they were ill informed about the range of issues facing the state. Over the course of this young state’s history, this notion has been proven true time and again.

A recent LA Times editorial presented a master’s thesis validating this premise with its wildly off base views about the Pebble mine project in Alaska, and the recent decision by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to return to the rule of law.

To begin, Pebble is a controversial project in Alaska. It is on land owned by the state of Alaska that is open to and identified for mineral exploration and mining. It is being extensively reviewed by the federal regulatory agencies and when they conclude their work it will be up to the state to begin its reviews. Alaskans are proud of their ability to balance decisions between resource development and environmental protections. Please come visit and see for yourself rather than relying on information from special interest groups like the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

There is an important point that most have missed in the coverage about the EPA’s action to reject the preemptive veto at Pebble and it is this: The EPA has not given up one iota of its regulatory authority regarding our project. Period. Full stop.

Right now, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) is leading the crafting of an environmental impact statement following the rules prescribed by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). The EPA is fully participating in this process as a cooperating agency. They have a seat at the table for this environmental review and published a constructive comment letter about their views to date on the USACE process. When the USACE is finished, the EPA still retains the authority to initiate a veto of the USACE decision about the Pebble project.

The recent decision by the EPA was to remove its pre-permitting block on the Pebble project – a preemptive veto and an action widely condemned by a range of groups that understood the long-range impacts this would have on development in the United States. A preemptive action had never been initiated by the EPA since the Clean Water Act was passed and the EPA was created. As a result of behind-the-scenes collusion between EPA staff and environmental organizations, the Pebble project was singled out for this unprecedented step. Where was the outrage from the LA Times when a government agency went rogue and overstepped its legal authority? Because it was against a developer, most of us in the industry know the answer.

The Pebble Partnership took the EPA to court in 2014 over this preemptive action and won a preliminary injunction from a federal district judge in Alaska. This meant that the judge thought we had a reasonable chance of the case prevailing. Fast forward to the waning days of the Obama administration where we reached a settlement only to have it cancelled as the November election grew near. After a new administration took office, we renewed our settlement discussions to correct this unprecedented regulatory overreach. The issue has never been about reducing environmental requirements for mineral development at Pebble. It has been about restoring fair access to the U.S. permitting system.

Ironically, the NRDC calls the NEPA process the magna carta of environmental law and endorse it for all projects in the U.S. – except the Pebble project. It begs the question of why have groups like the NRDC fought so hard to prevent the Pebble project from entering the NEPA process unfettered. Perhaps it is because we have undertaken one of the most extensive environmental and technical studies programs for a mining project in the U.S., and have designed a project that will meet the nation’s high standards for development. The Pebble project can be developed safely and can be done without harming the fish and water resources in Southwest Alaska.

The LA Times editorial also took an unnecessary and uninformed view about the mining industry in the United States. Mining, like other resource development industries, is subject to some of the highest standards in the world. This is not the industry of 50 years ago. We must post reclamation bonds before work can begin to ensure state taxpayers are not responsible for clean-up costs should an operator go insolvent. We must demonstrate to state regulators how we will close the mine before we get a single permit to begin operating. In Alaska, we must meet some of the highest standards for water discharge in the world. Mining is an important, safe and environmentally responsible industry.

Additionally, the products of mining are required for maintaining our modern way of life. Want a lower carbon future? All green energy – wind, solar, electric cars? These products can only be developed with mined materials. You cannot have a green future without responsible mining. Determining how this can be done is exactly what the NEPA process is all about.

Tom Collier was appointed CEO of the Pebble Partnership in February 2014. Prior to this role, Tom had a forty year legal career with Steptoe and Johnson with a specialty for guiding companies through the federal environmental permitting process. He has worked on several Alaska resource projects including the reauthorization of TAPS, Alpine oil development, and the CD-5 bridge issue. In addition to his legal career, Tom has worked for the U.S. Department of the Interior as Chief of Staff for former Secretary Bruce Babbitt and at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Tom has a Law Degree from the University of Mississippi where he graduated first in his class. Tom moved to Anchorage in February 2014.