The EPA is scheduled to release its revised watershed assessment for the proposed Pebble Mine in Bristol Bay sometime this spring.
Conservation groups are stepping up the lobbying pressure in Washington in anticipation of the ruling.
There are a whole host of groups who oppose the Pebble Mine from the Bristol Bay Native Corporation down to independent subsistence fishermen.
But the sheer volume of mineral resources and the hundreds of billions of dollars in possible revenue have enticed many to support the mine.
“It’s a of a size that they’ve told their shareholders is three times bigger than the biggest mine in North America,” former Alaska State Senate President Rick Halford said at a happy hour outside of Washington, D.C. for conservationists.
The Republican has been an outspoken critic of the mine, saying there’s no way an open pit mine of Pebble’s magnitude could coincide with the world’s largest red salmon fishery.
Halford, who represented Chugiak in the state Senate, has both personal and commercial interests in Bristol Bay. He owns a cabin and runs an outfitter service in Western Alaska.
He says the Pebble Partnership needs to step forward and submit its application for a permit.
“Hiding behind the ‘we haven’t applied yet’ when they have the Wardrop Report that they’ve paid for and filed with the Security and Exchange Commission; when they have their water rights application that’s hundreds of pages long, to take all the water from in both forks of the Koktuli and Upper Talarik creek. They have a lot on paper,” Halford said.
The Waldrop report is a study from Northern Dynasty, one of the companies involved with the mine.
Pebble Partnership CEO John Shively says the Waldrop report is a frame work. It doesn’t contain essential environmental guidelines. Those guidelines would be in a final permit application.
Shively would not pinpoint how far along the company is in its application, nor would he say when precisely it will submit its plan to the government.
“We’re a good ways. It’s possible we have a project description out this year. I’ve said that every year I’ve been CEO, and that’s been five years. But I think we’re getting close,” Shively said.
Shively says the Pebble Partnership has spent more than one hundred million dollars researching possible environmental affects.
He says he met with EPA administrators in Seattle three weeks ago, and agency officials say a draft assessment is due this month.
It would be open for public comment, and the agency would review the comments before issuing a final decision.
Jay Bellinger is the former manager of the Kodiak Island National Wildlife Refuge. He and more than a dozen other retired government employees – from the state DNR to the Fish and Wildlife Service – fired off a letter to the president.
They want President Barack Obama to intervene and block the mine.
Bellinger, who now lives in South Dakota, says he can’t believe the federal government, for which he worked for decades, would grant a permit.
“I’m flabbergasted that something like this could be proposed in America. And especially in a pristine habitat in Western Alaska where there’s very little of it rest in the world. And it’s not even necessary for human survival,” Bellinger said.
Unnecessary because the mine would rip copper, gold and other valuable metals out of the Earth, not oil and gas.
Bellinger, who was also visiting DC, says conservation groups in Alaska can’t prevent the mine alone.
“People have joined together that aren’t always on the same page to try and stop this thing. But they can only do so much. They’ve got to get groups down here in the Lower 48 to stand up and be counted,” Bellinger said.
And that’s where Tom Franklin comes in. Franklin works with the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. He says his group of sport fishing companies, guides and outfitters from all over the country is increasing pressure on Congress to block the permit.
He says the Alaska Congressional delegation has not led on the issue.
“They’re fence sitting a little bit right now. I think they recognize the volatility of this issue,” Franklin said.
Franklin says many in Congress don’t know much about the issue, in part, because the mine would be on state land. But the EPA has an interest in the water quality in the region.
And the area surrounding the state land is controlled by various federal agencies.
He says the EPA could nix any mine outright.
“It’s not necessary to wait for a permit application. We know that the scale of this development would be so great that it would have an effect on water quality. And that’s what EPA is primarily concerned about,” Franklin said.
With the agency about to undergo a leadership change, it’s unlikely any decision will come in the next few months.