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July 22, 2012
Office of Environmental Information Docket (Mail Code: 2822T)
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
1200 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W.
Washington, DC 20460
Submitted via http://www.regulations.gov
Re: Docket # EPA-HQ-ORD-2012-0276, Draft Assessment of Potential Mining Impacts on Salmon Ecosystems of Bristol Bay, Alaska
To Whom It May Concern:
The Resource Development Council for Alaska, Inc. (RDC) is writing to express concerns regarding the Draft Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment.
RDC is an Alaskan business association comprised of individuals and companies from Alaska’s oil and gas, mining, forest products, tourism, and fisheries industries. RDC’s membership includes Alaska Native Corporations, local communities, organized labor, and industry support firms. RDC’s purpose is to encourage a strong, diversified private sector in Alaska and expand the state’s economic base through the responsible development of our natural resources.
RDC has previously submitted comments regarding the Draft Assessment and 404(c) process and again urges the EPA to fully consider the following concerns and recommendations for improvement of the assessment.
While the EPA has stated it is “not invoking the Clean Water Act section 404(c) at this time,” it has also stated, “The information collected establishes a scientific foundation for decisions the EPA may make in the future.” RDC is concerned the EPA’s draft watershed assessment is so deeply flawed that it breeds uncertainty in the regulatory process going forward.
RDC questions, is this an Environmental Assessment? Or perhaps, an Environmental Risk Assessment? The draft assessment doesn’t fit these existing EPA models, but instead, picks and chooses elements of both. The EPA press release (02/07/11) implies a Watershed Assessment, but the report produced does not fit this model and does not meet regulatory functions.
The draft assessment study was completed in approximately one year, at an unknown cost to the public, and does not contain original or first-hand research. By comparison, the Pebble Partnership Environmental Baseline Studies, released to the public in early 2012, were conducted over five years, at a cost of over $120 million, and contains over 27,000 pages of first-hand research of Southwest Alaska. This comprehensive study includes recent conditions in the area. Yet it is not once referenced in the assessment section titled “Characterization of Current Conditions”.
Further, RDC is concerned the EPA will use the assessment to preemptively undermine State of Alaska and federal permitting processes. This action will cause harm to Alaska’s economy, and could deter future potential investors as a result of uncertainty in the process.
EPA’s assessment fails to address or acknowledge the potential positive economic impacts a project in the area could provide to the Southwest Alaska region, and across the state. The region is experiencing a decline in both population and subsistence activity, and has a high rate of poverty. The assessment ignores the positive benefits of Pebble in a region without a diverse economy.
New infrastructure in the area could provide access to more affordable energy, as well as reduce the environmental footprint of existing types of imported energy to the region, such as barged diesel. The assessment should include the positive impacts of all potential infrastructure, especially energy infrastructure.
While the Bristol Bay fishery provides important commercial and subsistence benefits, fishing alone has not provided the needed support to improve the region’s economy. Fishing by its nature is seasonal, and a majority of those employed in the fishery live outside Alaska. People in the region are leaving and schools are closing, while Pebble, and other potential development projects in the region have the potential to diversify the local economy, providing thousands of year-round jobs.
Meaningful Tribal consultation should also be completed, with all 12 Alaska Native regional corporations (ANCs) involved. ANCs each have a stake in the economic prosperity of the other regions, under the 7(i) provision of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act.
It is in the best interest of the State of Alaska and its citizens to protect fish, wildlife, and the environment for the use of all people. However, it is also a duty of the State to responsibly develop its natural resources to support its economy and provide for Alaskans. Section 8.1 of the Alaska State Constitution reads, “It is the policy of the State to encourage the settlement of its land and the development of its resources by making them available for maximum use consistent with the public interest.”
The draft watershed assessment and potential 404(c) action against a project that hasn't submitted an application to initiate the permitting process would be premature and ignores technology, planning, and mitigation measures that will be included in a detailed project plan. In fact, the assessment includes case studies from 100 years or more ago, further ignoring improvements in technology and regulations. The assessment also references case histories of tailings dam and impoundment failures that are irrelevant given the regulatory requirements and construction techniques that would be required for development by the Pebble Project.
RDC urges the EPA to not make a preemptive decision without adequate data that are supported by existing literature, and which meet the requirements of the Federal Data Quality Act. Moreover, RDC questions the creditability of such a rushed and incomplete assessment, which contains statements that cannot be verified, as well as errors and missing citations.
If the EPA were to deny any project access to the state and federal permitting process, such action would also be an assault on Alaska’s sovereignty, and a violation of the “No More” clause of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act. It is not the EPA’s role to dictate to Alaskans appropriate uses of State lands outside the specific confines of reviewing permit applications for fill and discharges for specific projects. A preemptive veto of Pebble, located on state land specifically designated for mineral exploration, would rob Alaska of its sovereign right to determine uses of state land. In Southwest Alaska, land use designations already prohibit or restrict resource development on about 70 percent of the land.
RDC is also concerned by the changing nature of the study proposed by the EPA. When the study was announced in February, 2011, the EPA publicized that the assessment would not be “limited to examining the effects of hard-rock mining projects, but (would) consider the effects of large-scale development in general.” The EPA also committed to including other federal and state agency participation as well as public and industry input. It has been the observation of RDC that the EPA has not lived up to these commitments and substituted a regional scientific assessment with an agenda in place to stifle resource development in the Bristol Bay region, a region larger than some states in the U.S.
The EPA’s own guidelines for completing environmental assessments emphasize the need for stakeholder involvement throughout the process, but the group which developed this assessment did not include representatives from the industry it will likely impact the most – mining.
RDC encourages the EPA to revise the assessment on a timeline that provides for an adequate analysis of the area, and to utilize it, along with the Environmental Baseline Studies completed by the Pebble Partnership, as supplements to the EPA’s role as a Federal partner in the State of Alaska’s existing rigorous and extensive permitting process. Best available science and technology can be applied to the assessment findings to assist in developing mitigation techniques if a permit for mining is solicited.
EPA must include coordination with State regulators to recognize and incorporate State regulations standards in the assessment. The State of Alaska’s bonding requirements, which require updates and timely reviews, mitigate the assessment’s assertion that any closure, premature or at the end of the mine life, does not include “planned site management.” Additionally, the assessment asserts that road culverts will be inadequate and poorly constructed, and ignores the State’s design standards that would ensure culverts are designed, constructed, and maintained to mitigate impacts.
RDC reminds the EPA that Alaska has a proud and exemplary record of ensuring that mining and fisheries can coexist. The Pebble Project, like Alaska’s existing large producing mines, should be afforded rigorous review under National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) as well as the established scientifically based permitting process that includes over 60 major state and federal permits and authorizations. Alaska’s existing mines are operating to the highest standards and in harmony with other resources.
RDC urges the EPA to stop undermining existing regulatory processes and avoid setting a dangerous precedent for development. Investment in Alaska should not be jeopardized by federal overreach. Preemptively halting a project would deprive government agencies and stakeholders of the specific information, science, and rigorous reviews that would come out of the multi-year process.
In conclusion, the draft Bristol Bay watershed assessment is seriously flawed. The EPA must take the time necessary to get it right. At that point, the assessment could potentially serve as a tool to supplement the state and federal permitting process that has yet to begin.
Resource Development Council for Alaska, Inc.
Additional comments from RDC members and others can be found here (opens in a new window):
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