Oversight hearing focuses on EPA, mining impacts

A House Natural Resources subcommittee held a hearing Thursday on what the Republican chairman called “abusive actions” by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency against mining operations across the country, including its watershed assessment on the proposed Pebble mine in Bristol Bay.

The hearing, titled “EPA vs. American Mining Jobs: The Obama Administration’s Regulatory Assault on the Economy,” offered the testimony of mining leaders from Alaska and West Virginia, as well as the deputy commissioner of the Alaska Department of Natural Resources and the CEO of the Bristol Bay Economic Development Corporation.

No representatives from the EPA attended; more than 90 percent of EPA employees are furloughed due to the government shutdown.

Much of the hearing focused on issues concerning coal mining in West Virginia and at mines in Alaska other than Pebble.

The hearing began with some dissention from Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), who disputed whether the subcommittee had any jurisdiction over the EPA.
Leading the witness testimony was Edmund Fogels, deputy commissioner of the Alaska Department of Natural Resources, who encouraged more state control over permitting and oversight.

Fogels said the impact on the Bristol Bay region of EPA’s watershed assessment was “increased uncertainty in the regulatory framework for mining.” The state is concerned, he said, that the federal agency is creating “new, ambiguous regulatory steps that exclude the state and duplicate processes already in place by existing state and federal laws.”

According to a fact sheet on the EPA website, EPA’s Clean Water Act veto authority has been used about a dozen times since 1972, out of more than 60,000 permit actions per year.

The state is not just concerned about one project, Fogels said, but is concerned about federal action causing the potential effective loss of all beneficial use of the area of land included in the Bristol Bay watershed assessment. Such land was promised to the state as part of the Statehood Act land entitlement to help secure an independent economic existence for Alaska and Alaskans.

“This is a serious concern, as the area of the watershed assessment represents almost 10 percent of the state of Alaska’s land holdings,” he said.
Fogels also noted the EPA assessment is based on hypothetical mining activity, rather than an official mine plan. The Pebble Limited Partnership has not yet released an official mine plan.

“If this mine plan did not comply with state mitigation and environmental protection laws, or did not receive appropriate federal permits under the CWA (Clean Water Act), it would not be able to go forward,” he said. “All of these decisions would be made based on specific proposals, rather than speculation and conjecture.”

Norman Van Vactor (pictured), the CEO and president of the Bristol Bay Economic Development Corporation, closed the witness testimony. Van Vactor noted the importance of the Bristol Bay’s salmon fishery and the role the EPA has played to help protect the region.

He told the committee that an unprecedented grouping of tribes, regional and village corporations, as well as subsistence, commercial and sports fishermen, bonded to request EPA’s involvement regarding Pebble. They did this because they didn’t think the state would take such action.

He told the committee that EPA’s watershed assessment has added knowledge and value to the discussion concerning the proposed mine and Bristol Bay, adding that this information is vital to our community and future activities proposed for the Bristol Bay watershed.

“The pure, pristine, and abundant water of Bristol Bay supports a salmon fishery that is the very foundation of Bristol Bay, unique in the world, and which is a national treasure,” he said. “The people of Bristol Bay know we live in one of the most incredible places on earth. And that fishery is threatened to its core by the proposed Pebble mine.”

Find a link to the video and the written statements on the Natural Resources Committee website.