Lawmakers to Pebble: Why not file already?

Media visit to a Pebble exploratory drill rig. 2012 file photo by Jason Sear/KDLG.
Media visit to a Pebble exploratory drill rig. 2012 file photo by Jason Sear/KDLG.

The proposed Pebble Mine was Exhibit A at a hearing in the U.S. House this morning. The EPA took steps to block the Southwest Alaska mine even though Pebble Partnership hasn’t applied for permits yet. The Republican-led hearing was supposed to be a critical look at environmental regulation, but the focus shifted as lawmakers of both parties kept asking the same question: Why hasn’t Pebble filed for its permits yet?

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Dillingham’s Kimberly Williams, director of an anti-mine group called Nunamta Aulukestai, says EPA did not act prematurely to block the mine. She says the threat of what the project might mean for Bristol Bay salmon and salmon prices has hung over the region’s economy for years.

“For us it has created some risk in our fishery. It has created anxiety,” she told the committee. “Why should I invest in the fishery? Why should my children invest in this fishery in Bristol Bay? Because there may be risks that come down.”

Pebble CEO Tom Collier told the House Resources Committee that his company has been treated unfairly. But several lawmakers said he could set the project on a more normal regulatory path by applying for environmental permits.

Here’s Rep. Debbie Dingell, a Michigan Democrat.

“But you can’t start a process until you file a permit. This is all part of making it go forward,” Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Mich., told Collier.

“Congresswoman, I so respect your view and particularly your late husband’s on this issue,” Collier said. He has a lot of Washington experience and was confident witness, but this was a bit of a gaffe: Dingell’s husband isn’t dead, just old and retired from Congress. But, asked repeatedly, Collier cited lots of reasons why he hadn’t filed for the permits yet.

“You wouldn’t want us to file if we learned that there was another possible environmental risk that we should investigate before we file,” he told one committee member. “You wouldn’t want us to filed if we didn’t have the money to go forward, because there was a market change. For the last two and half years, Congressman, we haven’t filed because of EPA’s actions.”

EPA’s action against the mine is on hold, due to a legal challenge. Still, Collier says the agency’s move has made it hard to attract investors. He says Pebble has already spent $750 million preparing to file for permits, and nothing in law requires them to apply before they’re ready. And Collier says talk about the project’s alleged risks to the environment is uninformed. The CEO says no one knows the scope or details of the current proposal.

“Were we to file an application today – were I to file an application – it would be a dramatically different project than what has been talked about in the past,” he said.

Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Ariz., suggested another reason for the delay: Collier’s bonus. Company documents show Pebble’s parent company will pay its CEO $12.5 million if he can get a Corps of Engineers permit within four years of applying. Collier’s bonus would drop to $7.5 million if it takes six years. Collier says it’s not a reward for delaying the application, just for getting it right.

“Yes, I am incentivized to submit such an airtight permit application that the process goes through relatively promptly,” he said.

Alaska Congressman Don Young spoke only briefly, at the start of the hearing, and he was uncharacteristically subdued.

“My position on this is this affects state land,” he said. “That’s very important.”

If the Pebble mine is a choice between tapping an enormous gold and copper deposit or protecting the world’s greatest red salmon run, Young isn’t choosing, not from that menu.

“You take away the rights of state, without due process, it’s sometimes questionable,” he said. “It’s not federal land. There’s a difference there.”

Young is a former chairman of the Resources Committee, but he didn’t chair this hearing and didn’t stay for much of it. Steve Lindbeck, a Democrat hoping to unseat Young, says that was an insult to Alaskans. Young’s spokesman said the congressman had another hearing to attend, on commercial space launches.