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By J. P. Tangen
For Mining News 

Administration adrift but water is clean

Obama should declare that now is wrong time for a rogue EPA to publish a superficial study that may threaten the Pebble Project


Last updated 5/27/2012 at Noon

On May 18, 2012, the EPA released for public comment a draft scientific study of the Bristol Bay watershed and its natural resources. Under the Clean Water Act, EPA claims the authority to perform scientific studies that enhance the public's knowledge of water resources. Whether, as a matter of law, the agency has that authority, is disputed, but for the purpose of this conversation, it is irrelevant because the more pressing question is whether, assuming such authority, it is a wise and timely use of scarce resources.

"The Bristol Bay watershed" is a vast area in Southwest Alaska that was largely selected by the state, under the Statehood Act, for its resource potential. One of the resources of the area is the fishery and another is its undeveloped mineral deposits.The region is home to a number of Alaska Natives and is the homeland of Bristol Bay Native Corporation. Many of the local residents rely on fishing as their primary source of cash. Justifiably, they are protective of their neighborhood and lifestyle.

In addition, the Bristol Bay watershed contains vast mineralization, including the interests of the Pebble Project, which is thought to be a potential source for over 80 billion, with a "b", pounds of copper. Ostensibly, the center of the controversy about the Pebble project relates to the toxicity of copper-based chemicals, which might escape into the adjacent waters and ultimately kill fish. I say ostensibly because everyone knows that the real driving force against the Pebble Project is Bob Gillam who has made it his personal cause celebre.

Gillam, in turn, has scared the bejesus out of the fishermen of Bristol Bay by asserting variously a.) that all copper mines in the world have adversely impacted the adjacent waters; and b.) that the Pebble Project represents a risk to the Bristol Bay fisheries. Gillam, of course ought to know better. Just like the rest of us, I am sure that as a small child he played with copper pennies (back when they were made primarily from copper), and it wasn't toxic to him.

The EPA release, however, reflects something disturbing about the current Administration. While previous federal administrations were truly guilty of not understanding many things, the incumbent seems more and more to not understand the concept of leadership. The EPA release is unwarranted and premature. According to the newspaper reports, it is also superficial by some accounts. The Pebble partners seem to be focusing intensely on the engineering as well as the immediate biosphere surrounding the project area. The EPA apparently was looking at a much larger area. Pebble is looking at the details (where the devil resides) while EPA wants a cosmic view.

In any case, the EPA release threatens not only the Pebble project, but also the several other potential projects in the Bristol Bay watershed that may commend themselves over time. That could devalue the state's land selection in the watershed without hope of recompense. To be clear, no one wants to compromise the fishery, and if the risk of a disaster is, as the EPA has put it, "a million to one" that risk may still be too high. I, on the other hand, would be curious to see the calculations that got to that conclusion. It seems just as reasonable to say that it is "a billion to one" or "a trillion to one." More likely, there is no risk at all.

EPA, plain and simple, has become a rogue agency. If the President concurs with its antics, he is out of touch. If, on the other hand, he is failing to exercise control, then he lacks leadership skills.

More than a century and a half ago, Prime Minister Disraeli correctly diagnosed the syndrome from which President Barack Obama apparently suffers - he has failed to follow the people he purports to lead.

The current posture of the American people, from the left coast to the right, is for the President to lead us out of the economic doldrums to a new prosperity. Austerity may be too Draconian, but putting the damper on a project the size and value of the Pebble project, in the absence of a risk to a neighboring industry, certainly is contra-indicated.

Now is the wrong time for Mr. Obama's EPA to be publishing another federally-funded, ill-conceived study. Now is the time for the agencies of the United States to get behind those projects that can generate wealth without environmental risks. There is no argument EPA can make that justifies the Bristol Bay watershed study release at this time, and it should be withdrawn.


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