Pebble finds friends on US House panel

Pebble CEO Tom Collier waits to testify at a U.S. House hearing. Photo: Liz Ruskin
Pebble CEO Tom Collier waits to testify at a U.S. House hearing. Photo: Liz Ruskin

Proponents of the Pebble mine in southwestern Alaska brought their case to the U.S. House today. Pebble says the EPA collaborated with mine opponents to restrict the project, in what the company calls a pre-emptive veto, because Pebble hasn’t applied for federal permits yet. Pebble got a sympathetic ear from the Republicans on the House Science, Space and Technology Committee.

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This hearing wasn’t really about the mine. It was about process. Specifically, whether the EPA used an objective process to restrict the mine, or whether the agency just went through the motions to reach a predetermined conclusion.  Pebble CEO Tom Collier says he was outraged when he read through the stacks of emails between EPA staff and mine opponents.

“Because what I found was collusion between the decision makers and environmental activists. And we can’t allow that in this country,” he said.

Tribes from Bristol Bay say the EPA intervened after they requested help. Collier says the EPA emails show the agency collaborated with the tribes even on that request.

“They  launched this process against us because they’d always planned to kill this project, particularly Phil North, and he’s helping draft the petitions that he then said is the reason why he initiated this process.”

North was a Kenai-based EPA biologist who retired and went sailing around the world. Or, as Collier put it, fled the country to dodge subpoenas regarding his work to block Pebble. (A judge has ordered North to testify in Anchorage Nov. 12, in a related lawsuit.)

Collier says the EPA’s pre-emptive process reaches much further than the controversial Antiquities Act, which lets presidents declare national monuments on federal land, precluding development.

“Because now, the administrator of EPA can unilaterally sign a document and withdraw — not just federal land — but withdraw state land and private land and essentially declare it a park, never to be developed,” Collier said.

The Republican leadership of the committee didn’t pretend this hearing would be an open-minded search for the truth. They declared the EPA biased before it started. Here’s the title they gave the hearing: “Examining EPA’s Predetermined Efforts to Block the Pebble Mine.” Republicans put only friendly questions to Collier. For instance, here’s one from Rep. Gary Palmer of Alabama.

“It’s very apparent the playbook is already laid out and has less to do with establishing the actual science …  and more to do with appealing to politics and optics to achieve a certain outcome at the EPA,” Palmer said. “Would you agree with that?

“I do agree, congressman,” Collier responded.

Democrats, of course, tossed their own softballs for the sole witness against the mine, former state senator Rick Halford. While Collier emphasized process, Halford spoke passionately about Bristol Bay.

“This is the last, greatest salmon resource left on earth,” he said.

No one from the EPA testified, but former Defense Secretary William Cohen did. He produced a report for Pebble, finding the process unfair, but he didn’t go as far as saying the EPA collaborated with mine opponents. Cohen urged the committee to use its subpoena power to find out more than he could.

Watching the hearing, behind the witnesses, was a contingent from Bristol Bay.

“I just think this whole committee meeting was a sham, coordinated between Pebble Partnership and the Republican House Majority,” said Verner Wilson, a commercial fisherman and and a volunteer for United Tribes of Bristol Bay.

He says Pebble should just apply for the permits already, and get its plan out in the open. And Wilson says he sees nothing wrong with the EPA communicating with the tribes.

“Of course a government agency is going to talk with people. They’ve talked with all sides,” he said.

Mine opponents say Pebble should design a project that complies with the EPA’s restrictions — such as losing less than five miles of salmon streams, and less than 1,100 acres of wetlands connected to salmon streams — so that the the permit process begin. Collier, though, says they need to get the EPA’s pre-emptive veto lifted before applying for permits.

“Why would you file something that can’t be granted?” he asked.