Partisan feud erupts over EPA as it moves to nix Alaska mine

The EPA moved Friday to scuttle a controversial open pit mine in Alaska and help preserve the area's salmon habitat. The step only fans the flames of discontent in Congress over the EPA approach to environmental regulation.

Al Grillo/AP/File
In this July 13, 2007, photo, workers with the Pebble Mine project test drill in the Bristol Bay region of Alaska near the village of Iliamma. The US Environmental Protection Agency on July 18, 2014, proposed restrictions that would in effect block development of a massive gold-and-copper prospect near the headwaters of a world-premier salmon fishery.

The Environmental Protection Agency is again at the center of a national political feud, after proposing on Friday to scuttle plans for an open pit mine on Alaska’s salmon-rich Bristol Bay.

This move comes as a federal court in Alaska litigates a suit filed by the proposed mine builder, Northern Dynasty Minerals, alleging that the EPA had already overstepped its bounds by issuing regulations before the permitting process had begun for the so-called Pebble Mine.

Though congressional Democrats, activists, and members of the fishing industry have lauded the EPA’s move, conservatives have rallied around the mining giant – a difference of opinion that has already fueled bickering among politicians, industry executives, and environmentalists from Alaska to Washington, D.C.

“We have not yet seen EPA’s proposal, so we will reserve further comments until we have a chance to read and analyze it,” Tom Collier, CEO of the Pebble Partnership, a subsidiary of Northern Dynasty, said in a statement. “We are outraged, however, that the Agency decided to take this action when litigation on their underlying authority to do so is pending in Federal court in Alaska…. It is further disappointing when you consider that many of the peer reviewers of the Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment noted that the Assessment – the only ‘science’ EPA has to justify its action – was not a sufficient basis to support any regulatory decision.”

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R) of Alaska has sided with Pebble, repeatedly warning the EPA against issuing “a preemptive veto” against the mine. In the House, GOP lawmakers are pushing a bill to reverse the agency's decision to rule out the gold and copper mine.

“It’s un-American to tell a private company, or anybody, that you can’t even apply for a permit, cannot even consider doing any operations on this land because the government has blocked it out,” said Rep. Bob Gibbs (R) of Ohio, a sponsor of the bill.

If the GOP measure clears the House, it has little chance of making it through the Democratic-controlled Senate or surviving a presidential veto, analysts say. However, environmental advocates worry that the congressional debate could be a platform through which the mining company revives the project's prospects, especially if Republicans win a Senate majority in November.

Northern Dynasty Minerals “has lost most of its financial backing because of the inherent risks of the proposed mine, and its many failures to produce a viable mining plan,” the conservation group Trout Unlimited wrote in an e-mail to The Associated Press, citing the recent withdrawal of two major financial backers of the project. “But now the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee is rushing to take up the beleaguered cause.”

Among the centers of opposition to Northern Dynasty is Washington State, where politicians – expressing a desire to protect the food processing and fishing industries in the Pacific Northwest – are mobilizing against the project.

On Wednesday, Rep. Rick Larsen (D) of Washington tried to stop the GOP bill in a House committee. “If this bill goes forward, it could lead to the construction of a mine that would have devastating economic impacts for many people in Washington State,” he said.

At least one high-ranking Alaska politician, US Sen. Mark Begich (D), opposed the project, saying it would be "the wrong mine in the wrong place." Representatives of the Bristol Bay Seafood Regional Development Association also oppose the mine project, citing concern for the health of the bay, which holds almost half of the world's sockeye salmon. Fishermen there have caught just short of 28 million wild sockeye since Jan. 1. 

Republicans in Alaska, however, are upset that out-of-staters are weighing in on what they see as an in-state issue. Among them is Rep. Don Young, who criticized Rep. Donna Edwards (D) of Maryland after she described the GOP bill as a corporate handout to the mine developer.

“Now we have somebody from Maryland telling me how we should represent that state. Disgusting,” said Representative Young on Wednesday, as he started to yell and point his finger. “I’ll be damned if I’m going to sit here and watch somebody from Maryland or any other state start telling me or anybody from Alaska how we should be running our state.”

The latest controversy over the Pebble Mine project comes just after the EPA’s internal watchdog found on Wednesday that there is “no indication of [political] bias” in the agency. A year ago, GOP lawmakers prompted the EPA to investigate allegations that the regulatory agency was being more responsive to liberal organizations' requests under the Freedom of Information Act than to conservative organizations.

This report includes material from The Associated Press.

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