Inspector General launches investigation into EPA’s Alaska Pebble Mine study

By M.D. Kittle | Watchdog.org

Days after the publication of Environmental Protection Agency emails showed EPA officials advocating for a pre-emptive veto of the Pebble Mine project in southwest Alaska, EPA’s Office of Inspector General announced plans to look into the agency’s activities to find out whether it broke any laws or policies.

“The Office of Inspector General plans to begin preliminary research to determine whether the … (EPA) adhered to laws, regulations, policies and procedures in developing its assessment of potential mining impacts on ecosystems in Bristol Bay, Alaska,” states an OIG memo obtained by Watchdog.org.

INVESTIGATION BEGINS: EPA administrator Lisa McCarthy addresses opponents of a large-scale mine in Alaska’s Bristol Bay watershed. The EPA’s Office of Inspector General is looking into the administrator’s office and other EPA officials to determine whether they broke the law or policy in a process that has led to an unprecedented action that could drastically limit or kill the mine project before a plan is submitted.

The communication, dated May 2 and written by Patrick Gilbride, director of science, research and management integrity evaluations for OIG, was sent to three mid-level EPA managers, including Nancy K. Stoner, acting assistant administrator of the agency’s Office of Water.

“We are initiating this review based on congressional requests and hotline complaints OIG has received on this matter,” Gilbride writes.

Pebble Limited Partnership, the investment group behind a proposed multibillion dollar copper and gold mine in southwest Alaska’s bush country, late last month rebuked the agency for “disregarding the rule of law, established precedent, and long respected public policy” in moving to pre-emptively block PLP from filing a permit application.

The proposed development would be the “largest and most valuable underdeveloped supply of copper and gold in North America, a resource that could be critically important to the U.S. economy and employment in Alaska,” according to the company,” PLP said.

“Rather than allowing the filing of a mining permit application, EPA employees secretly plotted with environmental activists to undermine the ability of land owners to objectively evaluate at develop the proposed mining of the Pebble deposit …, and thereby establishing a precedent that will have long-term harmful impacts on investment and job creation in the United States,” PLP asserts in its letter to the EPA.

The letter followed the publication of new emails obtained by the Washington Times that show Phil North, who served as an ecologist with the EPA in Anchorage, Alaska, and Kenai, Alaska, discussing with other agency officials the potential of the EPA dropping the Clean Water Act Section 404 (c), the so-called pre-emptive veto of a project, for some time — long before the agency conducted an assessment that some peer reviewers claimed was based on junk science.

“We have been discussing 404(c) quite a bit internally at all levels of EPA,” North wrote an attorney for a tribal company in August 2010, as reported by the Times. “This letter will certainly stoke the fire.”

Likewise, EPA officials briefed the conservation group Trout Unlimited, another mine opponent, about its plans, Swarts wrote.

“One of the clearest signs that EPA had predetermined it would kill the project came in the form of a 2011 budget request that sought money to pursue the 404(c) veto,” according to the Times story. “Officials at other federal agencies with roles in the mining review process were talking as early as 2010 that an EPA veto was a fait accompli.”

In February, EPA administrator Gina McCarthy finally lowered the boom, announcing the agency would initiate Section 404(c), which the EPA would use to block or greatly restrict the Pebble Mine in Alaska’s Bristol Bay region, before Pebble Limited Partnership has submitted a plan to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. EPA says it is now gathering information.

McCarthy at the time said the decision came down to protecting local resources.

“Extensive scientific study has given us ample reason to believe that the Pebble Mine would likely have significant and irreversible negative impacts on the Bristol Bay watershed and its abundant salmon fisheries,” McCarthy said.

Bristol Bay is home to half of the world’s sockeye salmon population, and the fishing industry in Alaska and beyond has pumped in a lot of money fighting the mine and pushing EPA to kill it through the Clean Water Act.

But that “extensive scientific study” has come under scorching criticism by peer reviewers.

Michael Kavanaugh, a member of the National Academy of Engineering, has said the peer review on the EPA’s updated assessment draft, released in April 2013, “fails to meet” the EPA’s own criteria.

“The lack of an open and transparent external peer review process for review of the 2013 Assessment seriously erodes the credibility of the document, and the validity of basing any future management decisions on mining in the Bristol Bay watershed on findings” of the assessment, Kavanaugh, senior principal of Geosyntec Consultants, wrote in testimony.

During the preliminary research phase, Gilbride writes, the OIG’s office will review relevant laws, regulations, policies and other documentation “as necessary.

“We plan to interview EPA personnel in the Office of Water, Office of Research and Development, Region 10 (including Alaska) and the Office of the Administrator,” Gilbride states.

The inspector general will schedule a kickoff meeting to discuss the objective, scope and time frame of the review.

The Office of the Inspector General, meanwhile, wants answers, including a list of all EPA personnel involved in the “concurrence and approval chain” of the assessment on the potential mining impacts on the Bristol Bay watershed. The IG also wants a “timeline showing the activities the EPA performed to conduct and complete the assessment, starting when the EPA decided to undertake the assessment through the release of the final report (in April 2013).”

Pebble Limited Partnership spokesman Mike Heatwole on Monday told Watchdog that the company is pleased that the EPA Inspector General’s Office has decided to undertake a preliminary investigation into the issues raised.

“We will certainly be watching this issue closely and the range of concerns that were brought to the attention of the IG’s office,” Heatwole wrote in an email to Watchdog.org.

Contact M.D. Kittle at mkittle@watchdog.org

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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