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Public Hearing Latest Step in EPA's 404(c) Process

Luke Brummer

Thursday’s EPA hearing in Dillingham is the latest part of the ongoing Pebble Mine conflict.  KDLG’s Chase Cavanaugh has more.

The US Environmental Protection Agency held a public hearing in Dillingham Thursday on proposed large-scale mining restrictions for the Bristol Bay Watershed.  Invoked under the authority of section 404(c) of the Clean Water Act, the provisions were requested by local native associations and villages.  They worry that waste from the proposed Pebble Mine, which would excavate for copper and gold west of Nondalton, could cause irreparable damage to the local fisheries.   EPA Region 10 Administrator Dennis McLerran says now that the restrictions have been proposed, they need to be shown to the public.

“This is an opportunity for us to hear whether we got the proposed restrictions right or not and to listen to the public. This has been a very open and transparent process for us, many opportunities for us to get input from all perspectives on the watershed assessment that we did in the first three years of this process and now as we’ve decided to move forward with the regulatory process, this process is an opportunity for us to hear more from a full range of perspectives including those hear in Dillingham.”

Over 120 people attended Dillingham’s hearing, including tribal elders, elected officials, and members of local associations.  The vast majority were in favor of the restrictions, but several people criticized EPA’s course of action.  One was Sean McGee, the Vice President of Public Affairs for Northern Dynasty Minerals, the company in charge of the Pebble project.  He said that unlike with other 404(c) actions, EPA vetoed Pebble before his company could apply for a permit.

“The EPA’s action to judge the Pebble Project and restrict the development of over 268 square miles of state land before we’ve finalized a development plan or applied for permits is unprecedented in the 40 year history of the Clean Water Act. Denying us due process is not just unfair. We believe and the State of Alaska believes it’s illegal. And so there’s litigation before federal court to stop what we believe to be a premature and unlawful regulatory process.”

When asked about the lawsuit, McLerran said he wasn’t overly concerned, and that it was just as important to hear opposing views.

“There is a lawsuit pending. We think it’s premature. We think that we’ll likely prevail in any challenge to what we’re doing here. It is pending and it is part of people’s opportunity under the law to challenge the work that we’re doing.”

Many people thanked the EPA for going through with the process, particularly tribal elders, who said the mine could threaten their subsistence way of life if it harmed the salmon.  McGee, though still adamant about going through a standard permitting process, tried to reach out to those concerned.

“We intend it to be as small as economically feasible, we will ensure it applies best practices and technologies to fully protect your fishery. As a priority, we want to maximize economic opportunities, jobs and contracting and even ownership for the people of this region. We want to bring you better power and transportation infrastructure. We want to enhance your fishery by creating more habitat than we affect, and we want to provide assurances that all of you and your interests in the Bristol Bay Fishery will be kept whole.”

EPA will take the comments from Dillingham and 6 other public hearings into consideration when it makes its final decision.  The public comment period ends on September 19th and additional feedback can be submitted