08/30/2013 10:21 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

EPA Administrator Visits Bristol Bay

lake iliamna

The biggest thing happening in Alaska this week: a visit by nearly-new EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, who's there to familiarize herself with several issues in the state. It is one of the first trips since McCarthy's confirmation by the Senate last month, and though other stops on her itinerary will highlight issues like climate change and air quality, it is her visit to Bristol Bay today to hear the local perspective on the controversial Pebble Mine that seems to be what's driving the itinerary.

The debate over the so-called Pebble Mine, a rich lode of copper, gold, and molybdenum ore that sits near the headwaters of the rivers that sustain Bristol Bay's legendary salmon run, has been one of the most divisive issues in Alaska for over a decade now, pitting fishermen, locals, and Native groups against the mining consortium developing Pebble and the state's traditionally pro-extraction values. The issue has been rising in prominence over that time, with each side attracting allies, but it entered a new phase in February 2011, when the EPA, at the invitation of local and Native groups, initiated the Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment, an attempt to gauge the potential effects of large-scale mining on the Bristol Bay ecosystem. The assessment has been through drafts and peer reviews, with the agency aiming to release a final version by the end of the year. Pebble's opponents hope that the EPA will use its powers under the Clean Water Act to block development of the mine.

It's worth pointing out that there is some symmetry here: McCarthy's predecessor as Administrator, Lisa Jackson, visited Bristol Bay in 2010, just before the EPA initiated its watershed assessment, and now, as they prepare to release the assessment later this year, McCarthy is making her own visit. But the EPA and McCarthy have cautioned against reading too much into the timing other than that she's new on the job, this was an issue she wanted to familiarize herself with, and the weather in that part of Alaska will soon make travel difficult until spring.

"Obviously her visit to Bristol Bay reflects that it's a priority for her, and the trip needed to happen soon while the weather was still decent," said Marianne Holsman, the Public Affairs Director for EPA's Region 10, when I spoke with her last week. "She gets that this is a very important issue and that it makes sense for her to talk to people on the ground and get up to speed."

And while she spent Monday touring the Portage Glacier outside of Anchorage, using the press op in front of the shrinking glacier to highlight her primary mandate from President Obama--addressing climate change--the anticipation was all about Tuesday's itinerary, which had the Administrator visiting the fishing hub of Dillingham in the morning before heading northeast to the village of Iliamna, home to the Pebble Partnership's exploration operations, for a helicopter visit out to the deposit site followed by a meeting with members of the local community. (Additionally, there were rumors that she would be meeting with other local and tribal groups, including the Bristol Bay Native Corporation, the powerful regional Native corporation that has taken a strongly anti-Pebble stance.)

I haven't yet seen any reports from the Last Frontier about what actually went down, but for anyone who's been following the Pebble fight, what she hears at each location will likely echo what we've heard before:

  • In Dillingham, Bristol Bay's largest community, with an economy buoyed by its role as seasonal fishing hub and headquarters for the region's various governmental and tribal offices and agencies, she'll hear about the dire threat the mine would pose to the fishery, the ecosystem, and their way of life.
  • At the deposit site, which McCarthy will tour with Pebble CEO John Shively, she will hear about the richness of the ore body and the extreme care that the Partnership has taken to carry out their exploration sensitively, with minimum impact on the ecosystem and maximum benefit to local communities. She will hear about modern mining technologies that will make this massive open pit safe, and she will hear about its small footprint relative to the size of the region. She will hear Shively say something like this: "The fish are number one. If we can't find a way to protect the fish, we can't move forward with this mine." She will likely not hear much about a definite timeline for permit applications to be filed.
  • And in Iliamna, the lakeside community that has seen the most economic benefit from the exploration options, and which would stand to benefit most from the mine itself, she will hear the economic argument for the mine. She will hear about the lack of economic opportunities in rural Alaskan communities and their desire for a solution that permits mining while protecting fish. She will also hear requests to let due process run its course, to let the permitting process work without its being cut off preemptively by federal interference.

For their part, the EPA and McCarthy have stuck to their explanation that this Bristol Bay trip is just about putting the new Administrator's feet on the ground and listening to all points of view. "Right now we're in a fact-finding mode to make sure we get the science correct and we understand the impacts in that area," McCarthy told reporters during her press op Monday at the Portage Glacier. "Then we will work on what that means for decisions."

So, as has become the norm in the Pebble story: wait and see.

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