EPA begins processing over 839,000 comments on mine discharge issues

All comments are entered into the public docket and can be viewed online

A decision on whether to leave in place federal restrictions on the discharge of dredged or fill material to avoid potential adverse environmental impact to the Bristol Bay watershed is now pending before the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

No deadline for that decision has been given.

EPA’s Region 10 office in Seattle is just starting to process more than 839,000 comments on the issue received by the Oct. 17 deadline.

“There is no ‘official’ count yet, since the comment period just closed last week and EPA is still processing all comments received via the Federal Register, via email, hard copies via mail, and comments spoken and submitted at the public hearings,” said Suzanne Skadowski, a media relations specialist with the EPA in Seattle. “However, as EPA processes comments received, they are all entered into the docket, and there is a running count on the docket webpage. 839,313 is an approximation of the total comments received and processed thus far, but not the official total yet.”

All comments are being entered into the public docket and can be viewed online at https://www.regulations.gov/docket?D=EPA-R10-OW-2017-0369

Some of the comments were delivered to the EPA at hearings held Oct. 11 at Dillingham and Oct. 12 at Iliamna. Those meetings were covered by KDLG, the public radio station in Dillingham, which recorded a cross section of testimony from proponents and opponents of the proposed copper, gold and molybdenum mine.  Participants in the hearings ranged from employees of the Pebble Limited Partnership to Alaska Native village corporations, sport fishing interests, commercial harvesters and other residents of the region.

Pebble Partnership spokesman Mike Heatwole said he felt that the EPA heard a more balanced mix of views at Iliamna than at Dillingham.

“Attitudes are different in the communities closer to the project and where many have had direct experience either working for us or have had family work with us,” he said.

Heatwole said that the PLP had employed 41 residents from the communities of Iliamna, Newhalen, Kokhanok, Nondalton, Koliganek, New Stuyahok, Levelock, and Igiugig.

Testimony in opposition to the Clear Water Act restrictions included comments from

John MacKinnon, of Associated General Contractors in Anchorage, who told the EPA that the proposed determination ignored and undermined all the existing federal and state processes. These are state lands set aside for mineral development, he said.

Deantha Crockett, director of the Alaska Miners Association, told the EPA that “it’s inappropriate to preemptively reject a project.”

Others asked the EPA to keep those restrictions in place.

“Our renewable resources like fish, game and anything gathered from our land and water is both culturally and monetarily important to me, my children and my community,” said Renee Zackar of Igugig.

“The only true economy with longevity is a renewable economy and we have that,” said Everett Thompson, of Naknek, who fishes commercially. “It is scary to keep investing into the fishery with an ever-looming threat of Pebble mine. Please do what is right, do not withdraw your Clean Water Act proposed determination,” he told EPA.

“You wonder how much facts and science even enter into the current (Trump) administration,” said Norm Van Vactor, executive director of the Bristol Bay Economic Development Corp., at Dillingham. “I don’t want to insult the good people who visited us, but I certainly hope it was not an exercise in futility, and a lot more than EPA and staff just checking off the boxes.”

Van Vactor said he felt that the hearings “went very, very well.”

“I thought the residents of Bristol Bay represented themselves well,” he said. “I thought it was powerful. I’ve been to a lot of these hearings over the years and I think the case made by people concerned about this project and what they brought to the testimony stand was good,” he said. “The same thing can largely be said for the Iliamna hearing. There were an awful lot of stars from little kids to people who needed translators.”

On the other hand, Van Vactor said, “It is frustrating that we have to go back to the drawing board.”

“There is no new technology out there,” he said. “It is sad. It can also be said this isn’t about mining for minerals. It is about miming in the stock market and people making a play to make a lot of money quickly in the stock market and leaver other people holding the bag. But in the meantime, the rest of us have to spend a lot of time working on an issue that should be over and done with because the people of Bristol Bay have spoken and instead we are working on an initiative by a foreign country to put tens of thousands of American jobs at risk to make money for a few foreigners.”

“I thought the current administration was about protecting American jobs,” he said.

Some members of Congress have also weighed in on the issue.

Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., along with colleagues in the U.S. House and Senate from California, Oregon, Massachusetts, Delaware and Washington state, sent a letter to President Trump urging caution and a careful consideration of the facts before removing environmental rules that protect Bristol Bay’s waters and the fisheries economy that depends on the fishery.

“The EPA’s plan to reverse clean water safeguards is egregious and inconsistent with science, and frankly, inconsistent with basic logic,” their letter said. “The Pebble mine directly threatens our maritime economy and thousands of American jobs that rely on this world class fishery. We ask you to listen to America’s fishermen and businesses and reverse EPA’s decision to undo strong protections and clean water safeguards in Bristol Bay,” they said.

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Margaret Bauman is a veteran Alaska journalist focused on covering fisheries and environmental issues. Bauman has been writing for The Cordova Times since 2010. You can reach her at mbauman@thecordovatimes.com.