Murkowski finds EPA criticism of Pebble Mine ‘substantial’

Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Republican colleagues spoke at a press conference at the U.S. Capitol Wednesday. (Photo by Liz Ruskin)

The Environmental Protection Agency issued harsh assessments of the proposed Pebble Mine last week, and they’ve made an impression on Lisa Murkowski. But the senator says her powers are limited.

For years, Murkowski has stayed neutral on the mine itself while defending the permitting process, so her recent statements are uncharacteristically pointed. 

“I can tell you, I have read the 404(q) submission and the issues that are raised by the EPA are substantial and, based on my read, well made,” she said Wednesday, referring to the agency’s review of Pebble’s proposal.

The EPA found the project “may have substantial and unacceptable adverse impacts” on the fish and fish habitat in the Bristol Bay watershed. 

The EPA issued a second document last week finding that the Corps of Engineers’ Draft Environmental Impact Statement on Pebble lacks specific information and may understate the risk to fisheries. 

Murkowski says the EPA makes a convincing case.

“I’m concerned, as I read through their analysis and critique, that the Corps’ DEIS has failed to meet my standard of a robust and rigorous process,” she said.

The Pebble Limited Partnership says the project area will be tiny relative to the Bristol Bay drainage. The company promises to manage and treat every drop of water at the mine.

Pebble opponents fear the open-pit gold mine would endanger the valuable salmon fisheries of Bristol Bay. Activists and fishermen have directed their efforts at Murkowski, imploring her to take a stand against the mine. 

But Murkowski says there are limits to what she can do as a senator, especially since she doesn’t want to interfere with the permitting process.

“I think that many Alaskans think that I have a magic wand on whether Pebble is a go or a no-go,” she said. “And in fairness, I don’t have that. I think I do have a voice that is appreciated and I will exercise that voice.”

Murkowski chairs the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. She also chairs the Appropriations subcommittee responsible for the EPA’s budget, and she’s a member of the Appropriations subcommittee responsible for the Corps’ budget.

Murkowski foresees two possibilities: either the Corps will revise the Pebble impact statement in a way that satisfies the EPA’s concerns, or the EPA will exercise its right to veto the mine application.