Shortly after he was elected, Gov. Mike Dunleavy nominated Jason Brune to lead the state Department of Environmental Conservation. But because of Brune’s previous work tied to the proposed Pebble Mine, his nomination has drawn controversy.
At his Friday confirmation hearing before the House Resources Committee, ninety-two people from around the state testified against Jason Brune’s nomination to be commissioner of the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation. Only seven testified in support of the commissioner-designee.
Opposition centered largely on Brune’s involvement with the proposed Pebble Mine. From 2011 to 2014 he served as the public affairs and government relations manager for Anglo American. That company backed the project until 2013.
At the hearing, many said there is incongruity between Brune’s previous work for the mining industry and DEC’s mission to control pollution and regulate the state’s oil-spill and mining-contamination programs.
“You wouldn’t put Willie Nelson in charge of regulating pot," said Juneau resident Carl Brodersen. "Sure, he has a lifetime experience and first-hand knowledge, but oh my lordy would he be biased toward the subject of his work, in a way that makes him simply unfit to do it. So, too, is a pro-Pebble corporate mining advocate unfit to run the department that exists to protect and conserve our environment.”
The proposed Pebble Mine would tap into large copper, gold and molybdenum deposits at the headwaters of Bristol Bay. This is also home to some of the richest salmon habitat in the world. That was a concern for Susie Jenkins-Brito, a Bristol Bay fisherman based in Dillingham.
“Brune says, ‘Think globally. Develop locally,’" Jenkins-Brito said. "That should mean enhance support and build on what is already a vibrant economy and fishery, with Bristol Bay supplying over half of the world’s wild sockeye salmon in addition to a deep, rich, and worthy subsistence culture, but I fear it is not. I find Brune’s neutral position on Pebble Mine a bold-faced lie.”
But during the live testimony, Brune did have some supporters, like Dave Harbour of Anchorage.
“Commissioner Brune’s extensive biological and natural resource management background perfectly qualifies him as Alaska’s environmental custodian from both constitutional and statutory perspectives,” Harbour said.
After leaving Anglo American, Brune worked as land resources senior director for Cook Inlet Region, Inc. before accepting Dunleavy’s nomination in November.
As commissioner, Brune would have the authority to issue key state permits for Pebble. On Friday, many people giving testimony said they were skeptical that he would remain neutral; in the past Brune has publicly stated that Pebble could be built without endangering the region’s fisheries. But on Friday, he approached the issue by emphasizing what he called a “predictable permitting regime.”
“We can and have the highest environmental standards in the world," he said. "Indeed, we should have the best environmental standards in the world. But the ground rules cannot be constantly changing. We must work collaboratively with those seeking to make investments in Alaska to make timely, science-based, and legally defensible permits that ensure their operations will co-exist with the environment we all love as Alaskans.”
Brune ended by saying that he would work to promote Dunleavy’s agenda that “Alaska is open for business.”
This was the second hearing where public testimony was largely against Brune’s appointment. The Senate Resources Committee approved his appointment in January despite 34 of 37 testifiers voicing their opposition to that action.
Friday afternoon’s hearing was extended by more than an hour. Brune will go before the House committee again to answer questions in a meeting that will likely be set for next week. That will also include another opportunity for public testimony. In the meantime, Brune will continue to serve as DEC’s commissioner-designee. He needs a majority vote of a joint Legislative session to be named DEC’s permanent commissioner.
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