In a Fox News editorial from last week, a key champion of a potential giant copper mine in southern Alaska urged the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to refrain from politicizing an imminent permit application.
The editorial claims that environmentalists are subverting the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which governs certain development permits, by pushing for a pre-emptive veto of the mine, worth about $55 billion in deposits, under the Clean Water Act.
Written by Pebble Partnership CEO John Shively, the editorial blasts a potential veto as “unprecedented and legally dubious”, and specifically attacks the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).
The council is having no truck with that, however.
“Complete nonsense,” said NRDC attorney and Pebble mine campaign chief Joel Reynolds to the International Business Times, describing Shively’s arguments. “The notion that the EPA or any other federal agency with lawful jurisdiction can’t reject a project without going through a NEPA process is frivolous.”
“In this case, the Clean Water Act gives the EPA the authority, without question, to protect the Bristol Bay watershed from large-scale mining,” he continued.
Southern Alaska’s Bristol Bay region is at stake for the thousands opposing the giant mine.
Activists say that the region houses a salmon fishing industry worth at least 12,000 jobs and $1.5 billion annually, and that mining could have disastrous environmental impacts.
Reynolds pointed out that similar vetoes have already been used thirteen times since the Clean Water Act became law about forty years ago, even if it is used only on select projects.
“I can’t recall any situation where application of this authority is more clearly warranted,” said Reynolds.
In turn, Shively maintained that a veto has never been used before an actual permit application is filed.
He told the IBTimes that a veto threat is usually used to solicit extra concessions from a developer at the end of the permitting process, rather than to shut a project down at its inception.
“They’re studying an area that’s thousands of square miles large, the size of some states,” said Shively. “They spend a year looking at it. So how do they come up with any kind of veto for an area that size? It’s just not responsible.”
For its part, the EPA told the IBTimes through a spokeswoman that it has made no decisions about if and when it could veto this project.
But the question may be forced upon them soon. Shively told the IBTimes that permits will be filed to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, who handle wetland permits independently of the EPA, before the end of 2013.
He plans to discuss project details publicly with local residents later this summer.
The EPA spokeswoman added that a final environmental impact report, which models environmental damage to the area caused by large-scale mining, is likely to come by the end of 2013.
She noted that the study itself does not have direct regulatory implications, but will “inform future government decisions.”
Others see the release of that report as the next key milestone outlining the path ahead for the EPA.
“Once that happens, then we’ll have a factual foundation for further action by the EPA,” said Reynolds, who anticipates the key report’s finalization as the next important step in a years long debate.
An earlier draft report, from April 2013, struck a blow against Pebble's developers, concluding that a mine could destroy 90 miles of salmon streams and 4800 acres of wetlands, even if no mining accidents or dam failures happen.
Even though developers sometimes attack a veto as a premature threat against a hypothetical mine, Shively acknowledges the broad outline of the Pebble mine is by now well defined and well publicized.
Northern Dynasty Minerals Ltd. (TSE:NDM), one company in the Pebble partnership, has already filed hundreds of pages of detailed initial plans to Alaskan state authorities and the Securities and Exchanges Commission.
According to a recent report commissioned by Northern Dynasty and its likely development partner Anglo American PLC (LON:AAL) annual production is said to be worth $1.7 billion, with the mine likely to support 14,000 jobs.
An EPA veto isn’t premature, because even the threat of a mine has already disrupted the lives of local fishermen and native tribes for years, said local commercial fisherwoman and Pebble mine critic Katherine Carscallen.
“It’s not a matter of vetoing a permit before it exists,” she told the IBTimes. “It’s a matter of providing assurances, something now, so that our lifestyles and our industry can continue without this threat lying over us.”
“We don’t really have a timeline from the company we can trust,” said Carscallen, an organizer with the activist group Commercial Fishermen for Bristol Bay.
“We’ve been waiting for the company to follow through on what they’ve been promising for almost a decade now,” she said.
For his part, Pebble mine champion Shively also acknowledges the “substantial opposition” to the project. Opponents say 80 percent of the regional population oppose it.
Late last week, freshly appointed EPA chief Gina McCarthy said she’d like to visit the proposed site of the mine, but didn’t explicitly back or oppose the project, reports the Washington Post.
Previous vetoes issued under the 404(c) section of the Clean Water Act can be found here.
CORRECTION: This article has been corrected. Previously it referred to the Clean Water Act as becoming law four years ago, when in fact the Clean Water Act became law about 40 years ago.