A Senate appropriations committee headed by Alaska’s Sen. Lisa Murkowski advanced legislation on Thursday with language that’s highly critical of the federal process on Pebble Mine.
The language is attached to the appropriations bill for the Department of the Interior and the Environmental Protection Agency, saying the draft environmental impact statement compiled by the Army Corps of Engineers on the project “likely underestimates its potential risks and impacts.”
The language is a rebuke of the Trump administration’s fast-tracked approach to reviewing and approving the controversial mine project, saying that “sound science must guide Federal decisionmaking.” The action follows skepticism raised by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of the Interior over the project’s process.
“The Committee notes that multiple Federal agencies commented to express their concerns that the DEIS is inadequate and does not meet the Army Corps’ obligations to thoroughly evaluate the potential impacts of the proposed project. The Committee shares the agencies’ concerns that the DEIS lacks certain critical information about the proposed project and related mitigation and therefore likely underestimates its potential risks and impacts,” explains the language.
The impact to the Bristol Bay fishery has been a key driver for local and statewide opposition to the mine. The backers of the project claim it poses no serious risk to the fishery, but opponents have pointed to other mining disasters as reason to be concerned. The Murkowski-headed committee sided with the fisheries, arguing that the federal report doesn’t seriously evaluate the potential impact the mine would have on the fishery.
“Sound science must guide Federal decisionmaking and all gaps and deficiencies identified in comments from Federal agencies and other stakeholders, including Alaska Natives, must be fully addressed, even if that requires additional scientific study, data collection, and more comprehensive analysis of the project’s potential impacts,” says the report. “In addition, the Committee encourages the Army Corps to utilize EPA, NMFS, and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to provide assistance on fisheries-related analysis given the special expertise and jurisdiction of those agencies.”
The section closes with a firm statement about the committee’s expectations for the project:
“Adverse impacts to Alaska’s world-class salmon fishery and to the ecosystem of Bristol Bay, Alaska, are unacceptable.”
The news of the language was welcomed in Alaska.
“We stand with Senator Murkowski because she stands with the people, fish, and way of life that are unique to Bristol Bay,” said Bristol Bay Native Corporation President and CEO Jason Metrokin in a prepared statement. “BBNC and the people of Bristol Bay appreciate Senator Murkowski’s willingness to use her position on the Appropriations Committee to make it clear that the current draft environmental impact statement for Pebble mine is entirely inadequate and unacceptable. We look forward to continuing to work with both of our Senators so that federal and state agencies exercise their full authorities and demand answers to their very real concerns about the current mine proposal.”
Metrokin called the addition of the language a “turning point.” He also applauded efforts by Alaska U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan in scrutinizing the federal government’s efforts during a Wednesday “Fishery Failures” hearing in the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.
According to a KTVA report of the hearing, Sullivan was similarly critical of the approach the Army Corps has taken with the mine. He warned against allowing politics drive the process, adding that “we can’t trade one resource for another in that region.”
“I think for the Alaskans, it’s important, it’s critical as the permitting process moves forward that science, not politics, drives the federal government agency decision-making,” he told the committee. “I’m sure you saw, but the EPA and the Department of the Interior recently submitted comments to the Corps’ draft EIS and many of their comments were highly critical of the draft EIS. The burden of proof is now on Pebble and the Corps to substantially address these concerns based on science as required by federal law.”
Why it matters
The rebuttals by Murkowski and Sullivan give a glimmer of hope in the face of what seems to be an increasingly inevitable process as the Trump administration, with the apparent backing of Gov. Michael J. Dunleavy, continues to push ahead with Pebble Mine. Though staff scientists at the EPA lodged their concerns withthe mine’s process, the political appointees at the EPA gave the mine a boost after Trump met with Dunleavy.
Dunleavy also came under fire for encouraging investors to back the mine, pledging that the state will defend the project against “frivolous and scurrilous attacks.”
Dunleavy’s behind-the-scenes work puts him out of step with Alaska’s U.S. Senators. The unified push back from Murkowski and Sullivan is particularly notable, too, because they’ve frequently been split on issues involving the Trump administration
Also notable is the shift in the use of “sound science.”
Alaska’s Republican politicians have typically stayed neutral on the widely unpopular project but have centered much of the conversation around following “sound science.” For a long time “sound science” was used to oppose efforts to halt the project, such as the Obama administration’s regulations on the mine, but now it’s being used in service of slowing the project down.