Did the Environmental Protection Agency stack the deck to put the kibosh to the Pebble Mine Project in Alaska?

Clusters of sockeye salmon can be seen up and down Bristol Bay's rivers during spawning season. Thomas Quinn photo.Congress will resume its inquiries at a hearing tomorrow of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, which will take testimony from Donald McClerran, the regional administrator for the EPA with Alaska oversight.

It seems clear Phillip North, an ecologist with the agency based in Soldotna, worked with the tribes in opposition to the project. Indeed, the inspector general says North used personal emails to carry out his mission – two years’ worth of which have turned up missing – and that this may have been illegal.

Opponents of the mine, however, argue that it is unreasonable to think that a relatively low-level EPA employee working out of his home office in Alaska could have singlehandedly torpedoed a project of the scope of Pebble.

If the project goes forward, miners would likely unearth several hundred billion dollars’ worth of copper, gold and molybdenum, but the ecological risks to the region and the Bristol Bay watershed are no less significant.

What the hearing will accomplish is uncertain. If it seems clear that the agency was predisposed to block the project, it is silly to lay this at the feet of a single scientist. For his part, North retired and departed to Australia (he has since returned), heightening the intrigue.

Meanwhile, Pebble and the EPA are withholding documents the other is seeking. And for all the lucre at stake, mine developers are running short of money.

Ultimately, this is a clash of an irresistible force – upward of $300 billion – and an immovable object – an intransigent federal agency. I don’t have a crystal ball, but my guess is that if the Pebble project ever goes forward, it will be with encumbrances that reduce profitability yet fail to protect the region from environmental calamity.


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