EPA to Review Proposed Pebble Mine Project. Thanks, Feds! (we think…)
“We don’t need no stinkin’ feds telling us what to do!”
Ah, the mantra of the 49th state. It’s true that there are many great points to support local governance. Communities themselves are often the best at determining what the needs of their residents are – especially in areas that don’t fit the “norm” of the country. In towns with no indoor plumbing, fuel at more than $10 a gallon, and communities where schools can be hundreds of miles apart, it’s understandable that Alaskans find it difficult sometimes to “go with the flow” and let those bureaucrats in DC legislate what we do on the tundra from an office in a white marble building thousands of miles away. It’s frustrating to feel misunderstood, and have to live with laws designed for someone else.
But then there are times when our “little town” called Alaska simply can’t do what needs to be done. We hate to admit it, but it’s true. I remember the first time I saw a “Thanks FBI” bumpersticker – blue with the Big Dipper of Alaska’s state flag. What would make us frontier-minded, libertarian, get off my lawn Alaskans actually thank a federal agency? I’ll tell you what. Our lawmakers proved that all it took was a couple thousand dollars and a few nice meals to sell us out. The self-described “Corrupt Bastards Club” was our most recent lesson on why sometimes… (looks around to make sure nobody sees me, and whispers)… “the feds” can be good guys.
Our own internal state ethics watchdog mechanisms were no match for systemic corruption, funded by big oil. And as a result of eventual investigations by that federal agency known as the FBI, 10% of our legislature was indicted for various bribery and corruption charges. Several landed in jail. In the absence of a professional major league team, watching our elected representatives fall like bowling pins became a statewide sport. There was something about watching those who violated the public trust, get their comeuppance that felt gratifying – hence, the bumperstickers, and the embarrassing reminder that if we actually want to get along without federal intervention, we’re going to need to carry out certain uncomfortable tasks ourselves.
We’re in another one of those situations again. This time, the three-letter federal agency that those who are corrupted by big money influence find themselves facing is the EPA. The oil companies, and mining interests rear their heads in opposition to most things environmental. Let’s face it – it’s just plain inconvenient when you want to extract offshore with little regulation and you have to deal with annoyances like polar bears, and floating ice, and endangered whales, and having the ability to clean up and pay for your messes. It’s a pain in the neck when you want to dig up a bunch of coal, or copper and it’s located underneath a fishery. The thorn in the side of those extraction industries who fund elections and get Alaskan candidates in office, is the agency that dares to tell them they can’t do whatever they want.
So, naturally, when those who do care about the environment, and the mess that could be left behind (think Exxon Valdez and Gulf of Mexico only with lots of ice) see the David v. Goliath battles of elected leaders v. extraction, they get a little nervous. Our battle tends to work out a little different than the Biblical one. Goliath tells David that if he lets him do whatever he wants, he’ll make sure David gets re-elected and not replaced by Pete, who will do it if David doesn’t. And then Pete v. Goliath ends up being an even worse deal for the people because Pete is an even bigger sell-out. A grim scenario.
So naturally, when an entity comes in who is actually allowed to tell Goliath what to do, our little ears perk up and our hearts are filled for a moment with a strange sensation we’re not used to feeling – hope! And that brings us to today.
Heard over the horizon are those booming footsteps you hear in cartoon fairy tales to indicate the approach of a giant. My coffee is making little spontaneous tremulous ripples. The dog awakens and turns her head to the side with ears cocked. It’s…. it’s…. the Environmental Protection Agency! And they’ve come to look at the proposed Pebble Mine project. And this is a good thing.
The EPA said it is launching the review in response to petitions last year from several Southwest Alaska tribes, commercial fishing groups and other organizations opposed to Pebble. Those groups are worried about the potential impact of large-scale mining on Bristol Bay’s world-class salmon runs.
The EPA, however, did not give the petitioners what they had requested. The agency declined to formally consider blocking mining waste disposal in waterways downstream of the Pebble deposit. The agency said it might — or might not — consider taking that step in the future.
The EPA has the authority to do this, but generally, this happens only after the company in question files a permit. That will not happen in the case of Pebble until this year or next. And generally speaking, applying for a permit in this state means you get it. So, our little episode of happy hopefulness gets instantly tempered with cautious optimism and worry.
We wait now, for the science. There will be two kinds of science – the EPA science, and the science paid for by the Pebble Project. Any wagers how that’s going to turn out? Soon, it will be the war of scientists with one side saying it’s perfectly safe to put the largest copper and gold mine on the continent at the headwaters of the largest salmon run on the continent. They’ve got all sorts of safety mechanisms, and plans, and an earthen dam that you’ll be able to see from space to contain all the toxic byproducts of mining and keep them from affecting the delicate life cycle of the salmon and other marine creatures in the Bay that make up 60% of the nation’s seafood. What could go wrong?
And the other side, we presume, will have a different story. We just have to wait and find out what it is, and hope that it isn’t influenced by outside forces.
But, the bottom line is this – We can get no guarantee from anyone that this project will not affect salmon. Nobody can absolutely say for certain that a disaster could never happen. And that, right there, is too much risk. When the thing you risk is the most precious thing you own, you’re allowed to be cautious. So, prepare for the next year which will include opportunities to make public comment on the mine.
Meanwhile, our elected leaders find themselves continually wedged between the monied powers that can get them re-elected or have them facing a well-funded opponent, and the will of the people who actually cast the votes. They have a variety of opinions on the subject but most are tip-toeing through the demilitarized zone, hoping for the best. They won’t have to stick their flag in the ground and take a position until later.
Oh… except for Don Young. Alaska’s lone congressman is right out there on the front lines proposing legislation that would strip the EPA of their veto power to enforce the Clean Water Act. He did this earlier in the year in response to oil drilling activities in Conoco Phillips alpine fields, but it would also keep the feds out of things like Pebble Mine as well – not to mention countless projects nationwide to which the EPA would no longer have veto authority to stop water contamination. “Enough is enough,” sayeth the Congressman for All Alaska. You may send thank you letters to his office in DC.
Steve Borell, executive director of the Alaska Miners Association, said the EPA’s decision not to invoke its veto authority at this time is “good news.”
“They haven’t shut off (Pebble), so I think the science will speak for itself,” he said.
Which science remains to be seen.
So, yes. It’s good that the EPA will be studying this project. But, keep in mind that when the FBI came in and nabbed a bunch of legislators in the Corrupt Bastards Club, they got little fish like Vic Kohring, Bev Masek, and Pete Kott… They did not get Frank Murkowski, Don Young, Ted Stevens or his son Ben Stevens. It may still happen, but the mysterious nets of the federal government seem to catch the little fish while letting the big ones swim through.
So, will the EPA let the biggest fish of them all swim through the net? Will Pebble Mine and its trillion dollars worth of mineral wealth somehow escape our grasp and endanger Bristol Bay, and therefore a good portion of the nation’s seafood supply? Stay tuned and stay informed no matter where you are, because this issue affects people far beyond the borders of Alaska.