EPA email trail shows Alaska Peb­ble Mine plot

Ob­jec­tiv­ity of agency in doubt

The Washington Times Weekly - - National - BY VA­LERIE RICHARD­SON

It didn’t take long for Thurs­day’s House com­mit­tee hear­ing on the En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency’s role in block­ing the Peb­ble Mine to start sound­ing less like a con­gres­sional probe and more like the plot of a Michael Crich­ton thriller.

Start with a pro­posed Alaska mine worth un­told bil­lions, add a trail of emails link­ing EPA staff with the mine’s op­po­nents, and throw in an ex-agency sci­en­tist now re­fus­ing to an­swer ques­tions in Aus­tralia.

“I’m just amazed. When I hear all the ques­tions and the tes­ti­mony and, quite frankly, the ev­i­dence that I’ve seen, this reads more like a novel,” said Rep. Barry Lou­d­er­milk, Georgia Repub­li­can.

At the House Com­mit­tee on Sci­ence, Space and Tech­nol­ogy hear­ing, Repub­li­cans took aim at the EPA’s ob­jec­tiv­ity in as­sess­ing the project, pro­duc­ing a cache of emails from EPA staffers ob­tained through Free­dom of In­for­ma­tion Act re­quests.

One ex­change from April 12, 2009, showed EPA sci­en­tist Philip North mak­ing “sug­gested ed­its” to a draft pe­ti­tion drawn up by op­po­nents of the mine call­ing for a re­view of the project un­der the Clean Wa­ter Act’s Sec­tion 404(c).

An­other email be­tween EPA em­ploy­ees David Evans and Palmer Hough re­ferred to a press re­lease from Sen. Lisa Murkowski, Alaska Repub­li­can, on the EPA’s de­ci­sion to con­duct a Bris­tol Bay watershed as­sess­ment.

“In­ter­est­ing spin on EPA’s an­nounce­ment/de­ci­sion. Her communications would sug­gest no [re­view] would be done un­til all the sci­ence is in,” Mr. Evans wrote in the Feb. 7, 2011, email. “Ob­vi­ously, that’s not what we have in mind.”

Rep. Gary J. Palmer, Alabama Repub­li­can, called the email “just an­other ex­am­ple of the EPA work­ing out­side ac­cept­able pa­ram­e­ters, over­reach­ing and, in some cases — and in this case — it just ap­pears to be very ma­nip­u­la­tive of the process to reach a pre­de­ter­mined out­come.”

“We’ve seen it in other ar­eas where the EPA’s in­volved — the ozone stan­dard, the Clean Power Plan, the wa­ters of the United States and now with Peb­ble Mine. I just think at some point EPA’s got to be held ac­count­able for ac­tions such as this.”

House Democrats pointed out that no EPA of­fi­cials were present at the hear­ing, but Chair­man La­mar Smith, Texas Repub­li­can, said they had been in­vited to an up­com­ing hear­ing in or­der to avoid prob­lems with on­go­ing lit­i­ga­tion.

They ar­gued that the EPA had lit­tle choice but to act given the out­cry from op­po­nents in Alaska, in­clud­ing some tribes and own­ers of nearby sock­eye salmon fish­eries, and the re­fusal by the Peb­ble Part­ner­ship to file for a min­ing per­mit.

“How much of EPA’s de­ci­sion to move for­ward was based on frus­tra­tion that emerged from the fish­er­men who de­pend on this, from the Na­tive Amer­i­cans, from the peo­ple of Alaska, that this was just a sword of Damo­cles hang­ing over their head?” said Rep. Don­ald S. Beyer Jr., Vir­ginia Demo­crat. “That Peb­ble was not com­ing for­ward with a mine per­mit and there was a lot of pres­sure on the EPA to do some­thing?”

Former De­fense Sec­re­tary Wil­liam Co­hen, author of an Oct. 6 re­port crit­i­cal of the process, pointed out that the project lies on state land des­ig­nated for min­ing, not fed­eral land.

“The no­tion that the EPA can make you file some­thing that you’re not ready to file, and over the ob­jec­tions of the state of Alaska, is, it seems to me, that’s quite a stretch for EPA’s power,” Mr. Co­hen said.

The re­port by Mr. Co­hen, who was in Demo­cratic Pres­i­dent Clin­ton’s cabi­net, con­cluded that the EPA had acted un­fairly by us­ing the less com­pre­hen­sive 404(c) author­ity in­stead of eval­u­at­ing a per­mit ap­pli­ca­tion un­der the Na­tional En­vi­ron­men­tal Pol­icy Act.

“EPA’s un­prece­dented, pre­emp­tive use of Sec­tion 404(c) be­fore a per­mit fil­ing, in my judg­ment, ex­ac­er­bated the short­com­ings of the Bris­tol Bay Watershed As­sess­ment and in­hib­ited the in­volve­ment of two key par­tic­i­pants — the Army Corps of En­gi­neers and the State of Alaska,” Mr. Co­hen said in his tes­ti­mony.

His find­ings were echoed in a re­port re­leased Wed­nes­day by the House Com­mit­tee on Over­sight and Gov­ern­ment Re­form, which ac­cused the EPA of ex­er­cis­ing a “pre­emp­tive veto” against the mine by un­der­tak­ing a rarely used 404(c) re­view.

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