EDITORIAL: EPA goes too far on Pebble mine


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U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy on Feb. 28 did what supporters of the proposed Pebble mine feared she would do: initiate a review process that could preemptively prevent the mine project from proceeding.

The action isn’t just one that the mine project’s supporters feared, however. It’s also an action that riles those who believe a project should at least be presented in full through a permit request before running the risk of being squashed by the government.

The Pebble Limited Partnership has not sought a permit from the Army Corps of Engineers, which is now prohibited by the EPA administrator’s action from even approving one if it were to be submitted.

The EPA administrator initiated the rarely used process under section 404 of the Clean Water Act. A letter to the affected parties from the director of the agency’s Region 10 says that the agency will conduct a review, “consistent with the law and the best scientific information available,” that could lead to restrictions.

The letter clearly carries a tone that suggests that the agency has already determined that it won’t allow Pebble to proceed.

Yet the EPA itself doesn’t even seem certain of the level of impact from the proposed mine. This is indicated by the wording of the agency’s news release announcing the administrator’s decision.

The news release says the agency’s process will be looking for options to protect the Bristol Bay salmon fishery from “the potentially destructive impacts” of Pebble. It says Pebble “has the potential to be” one of the largest open pit copper mines ever developed and that it “could threaten” the salmon fishery.

But the agency also claims, in the same news release, that Pebble “would likely result in significant and irreversible harm to the salmon and the people and industries that rely on them” and “would likely cause irreversible destruction of streams.”

Which is it? Is it potential damage or is it likely and irreversible damage?

This is precisely why the EPA shouldn’t act until a permit request has been made. At that time, the Corps of Engineers and the EPA will have a detailed proposal on which to pass judgment. To date, that hasn’t been the case.

Whether the Pebble mine is good for Alaska isn’t the issue today. It may not be good for the state and specifically for the Bristol Bay region. What is the issue, though, is how the government treats a proposal.

If ever there is an example of overreach by a federal agency, the EPA administrator’s decision to go out of her way to put up a major roadblock in front of the Pebble mine at this early stage is it.

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