In a “town hall meeting” with Senator Lisa Murkowski in Dillingham Thursday, attendees expressed disappointment over her support of Senate Bill 2156, which would limit EPA’s use of the Clean Water Act’s 404(c) provision, and asked her to protect the region and its way of life.
According to observers who attended from Bristol Bay Native Corporation (BBNC), more than 250 people filled the Dillingham Elementary School gym, with time given to 22 of the 75 who signed up to comment.
Commenters reminded Murkowski that it was people from the region who asked the federal government to step in to help protect Bristol Bay. In 2010, several tribes and BBNC petitioned EPA to use its 404(c) authority to limit or restrict development at the Pebble deposit.
Part C of Section 404 authorizes the EPA to withdraw, deny, prohibit or restrict areas to discharge – before or after a permit has been submitted – if it determines that a discharge of fill would result in a “significant loss or damage to fisheries, shellfishing, or wildlife habitat or recreation areas.” The authority, rarely used, has been previously upheld by courts.
However, now that the agency has started this process related to the Pebble deposit, Murkowski and others are crying foul, describing EPA’s action in terms such as “federal overreach” and “abuse of power.”
At the town hall, Murkowski explained her co-sponsorship of SB 2156, the “Regulatory Fairness Act,” by saying she is determined to push for a fair process for developers. On Murkowski’s Senate website and elsewhere, the Senator has framed the issue of 404(c) as one of fairness, representing the bill as a way to push back against an EPA “seeking to dramatically expand its authority.” In fact, EPA’s ability to use 404(c) before or after permitting is nothing new; although the authority is rarely used, it has been written into the Clean Water Act since its inception.
In Dillingham, Murkowski defended the proposed legislation, saying it would not take away EPA’s authority to enact 404(c) limits during a typical permitting process, during which a mine plan would be presented. Bristol Bay Native Corporation Chairman Joseph Chythlook responded that residents had been waiting for years to see such a mine plan. “PLP keeps telling us they intend to file a mining plan,” he said. “We have been waiting for 10 years – and they continue to manipulate public opinion, media and now the courts.”
Murkowski, while staunchly against the EPA’s use of 404(c) before or after the permitting process, has also taken developers to task on their delay in submitting a mine plan. In July 2013, she wrote a strongly-worded letter to Northern Dynasty Minerals, Anglo American and the Pebble Limited Partnership stating the effect that such a delay has on the people of Bristol Bay.
Chythlook further reminded Murkowski of Pebble Partnership’s promise to Bristol Bay not to develop if the mine was unwanted; instead, he said, they filed a lawsuit. Addressing Murkowski directly, he said: “You have heard from us tonight. We want to hear from you that you will help us protect our fisheries and way and life. That is all we asking, and we hope you hear us.”
Murkowski continues her visit with Bristol Bay residents today, with stops in Togiak and New Stuyahok. She is next up for reelection in 2016.