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EPA's reversal on Bristol Bay raises risk of destructive mining in Minnesota, too

EPA's reversal on Bristol Bay raises risk of destructive mining in Minnesota
REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
The fishery’s local economic value is routinely estimated at $500 million per year, and local employment in the range of 15,000 to 20,000 jobs.

The most encouraging modern development in how America limits mining damage took a torpedo on Friday.

Citing a preference for “regular regulation” — which is to say, the type most easily gamed by industry — the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s new chief announced that the EPA was dropping its defense against a lawsuit by would-be developers of a copper/gold/molybdenum mine at Bristol Bay, Alaska.

That would be the Pebble Limited Partnership of Canada, owned by Northern Dynasty Minerals Limited, the current Canadian brands on a four-decade-old effort to build the world’s largest open-pit mine for precious metals.

Pebble seeks to do this in a watershed that sustains not only world-class salmon runs but a variety of commercial, sport and subsistence fishing that depends upon the fish. The fishery’s local economic value is routinely estimated at $500 million per year, and local employment in the range of 15,000 to 20,000 jobs.

Even the late U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, a pro-mining Alaska Republican who never hugged a tree in his life, vowed to block the Pebble Mine any way he could, because it was simply “the wrong mine in the wrong place.”

And, in effect, that was the decision the EPA reached in 2014 after a three-year-long, big-picture review of what’s likely to happen if you dig and crush rock on such a scale in a watery, fragile environment, then store the waste behind earthen dams in terrain that’s prone to earthquake.

Concluding that significant harm to the fishery was nearly inevitable — and the odds of catastrophe unacceptably high — the EPA took up a rarely used provision of the Clean Water Act and reached a determination that said, in effect:

Guys, there’s no point in having you develop a detailed mining proposal, then shepherd it through the ordeal and expense of a permitting process, when it’s so clear at the outset that permission ultimately will be denied.

Northern Dynasty replied with three lawsuits. On one of these — a procedural challenge to some of EPA’s consultations — the company won a temporary injunction. That’s the lawsuit EPA said Friday it has settled.

The company will now drop its other claims; the agency will stop proceeding toward a final determination against the Pebble Mine; the project will be considered in the traditional, long-form permitting process.

EPA chief Scott Pruitt claimed the settlement was motivated by a desire “to steer EPA away from costly and time-consuming litigation.” Critics replied that EPA “capitulated” under pressure from Pebble’s lawyers.

To my eye, the facts suggest neither. This looks like nothing more than a simple giveaway to  a foreign mining company, overriding EPA’s scientific findings — untouched by the settlement terms — and the wishes of clear majorities of Alaskans (who, by the way, gave Donald Trump a popular-vote victory in November).

According to the  Alaska Dispatch News, the case wasn’t going all that well for the company.

The 2014 injunction was a limited, procedural victory that directed EPA to pause in working toward its final determination until certain issues had been litigated, but these were about the openness of EPA’s process, not the substance of the findings. Also, the judge rejected other Pebble claims while directing its lawyers to “rewrite the complex lawsuit ‘as soon as possible.’ ”

It is far from certain that the Pebble Mine can survive review under “regular regulation,” either. Or, for that matter, that the company will apply for permits, although Pruitt’s announcement invited it to do so; investment partners have fallen away over the years.

What’s crystal clear about Bristol Bay today is that the road to resolution is now longer, steeper and more expensive for all concerned — including taxpayers.

Implications for Minnesota mines

Minnesotans who have watched PolyMet Mining Corp.’s NorthMet project trudge along have a good sense of what that route looks like: a protracted process in which the company submits its analyses, which are found faulty, undergo revision, are resubmitted … rinse, lather, repeat.

But there is now a key difference — in the PolyMet matter, EPA was often critical of both the mining company’s work and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources’ approvals.

It’s a different EPA in the Trump era, and last week’s settlement is widely seen as a signal that despite hardrock mining’s perfect record of causing serious environmental harm, the agency will no longer be so nitpicky in applying the law, whether to Pebble or to PolyMet — back in the news with findings that its suggested “damage deposit” may fall ridiculously short of what’s needed.

For those who love Minnesota’s canoe country, and especially those who also make their living from it, a bigger concern must be what this shift bodes for Twin Metals Minnesota and its ambitions for a vast mining complex within the watershed of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and Voyageurs National Park.

Last year, TMM had two federal setbacks that seemed to doom this bad idea, which is strongly opposed by Gov. Mark Dayton, other influential Minnesotans and considerable public opinion. The Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service decided against renewing the company’s lapsed mineral leases, and also to determine at long last whether any sulfide mining should be permitted within the quarter-million acres of the Superior National Forest that isn’t already protected as wilderness.

This is an issue that’s been kicked down the road for decades since the BWCA protections were finally resolved, and it seemed at last that a Pebble-type decision had been reached (although, of course, TMM immediately challenged the move in court).

In late April, according to the Washington Post, Minnesota Reps. Rick Nolan and Tom Emmer, a Democrat and a Republican, met with Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to ask that these sensible and overdue decisions be reversed.

Why Alaskans oppose Pebble

It is fair to say that the Pebble Mine has been even more deeply and bitterly controversial in Alaska than the PolyMet and TMM projects have been in Minnesota, even though Alaska has a mining/logging/drilling culture that’s at least as resistant to environmental protections as ours.

Opposition to Pebble is often characterized as being tribally led and/or orchestrated, and certainly native Alaskan groups have been vocal about the threat to their livelihoods and even the continued existence of their villages. It’s also true that the tribes were prominent among Alaskans pressing hard against EPA’s initial reluctance to involve itself in a prepermitting review.

But there are concerns well away from villages in the project’s environs. There is the matter of transporting crushed ore all the way to Cook Inlet for processing, either by pipeline (for slurry) or by truck, over lots of new roadway, for coarser material. There’s the issue of groundwater withdrawals that might be four times larger than current usage by the city of Anchorage.

And always there is the threat to the fishery: the world’s largest sockeye salmon run; plus four other types of Pacific salmon, as well as herring, in commercially harvested quantities; plus sportfishing for salmon, trout, whitefish ….

Ted Stevens is long gone, but the mine’s current political opposition includes Gov. Bill Walker, an independent. The congressional delegation, all Republican, takes the temporarily safe line that Alaska shouldn’t trade one resource for another — precious metals for fisheries — and that if Pebble can’t operate without harm, it shouldn’t go forward.

Polls generally show large pluralities to significant majorities of Alaskans opposing the mine, but here’s one very clear marker: In the 2014 elections, a referendum requiring that any Pebble mine earn approval of the Alaska legislature — as well as the various permitting agencies — passed by a two-to-one margin, according to Devin Henry writing in The Hill.

Most recently, a coalition of more than 200 sportsmen’s groups across the country have stepped up with an argument that “millions of Americans eat, fish for, or make their living off of Bristol Bay’s wild salmon,” including nearly half the world’s annual sockeye harvest. Other points:

  • Some 14,000 people are employed in commercial and recreational fishing businesses centered on Bristol Bay.
  • 29,000 fishing trips each year arrive in the region, and the area also draws hunters seeking bear, moose, caribou and waterfowl.
  • Overall economic activity totals $1.5 billion directly from the salmon fishery and $160 million per year from tourism and other related business activity.

And so on. Wouldn’t you think these arguments might cut some ice with a president pledging to create jobs, shore up the economies of rural communities — and put foreign companies on notice that they can’t push the U.S. government around?

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Comments (9)

Fantastic!!

When a company passes all environmental tests to get permitted to mine, log, fish or farm they should get the permits. If the company can't pass the environmental tests don't give them the permits. The problem is once Polymet passes all the EPA, DNR, MPCA and 3-4 other agencies requirements they get sued by everyone from friends of wolves to friends of water. Then in the delay time requirements change. Now with a new approach with the EPA (you pass, you get permits) hopefully we will be mining the copper/nickel everyone uses daily here in Minnesota. If you don't use copper/nickel, then you should complain, but for everyone of us who use these minerals we should mine them here, employ locals and have regulations (designed by experts) to protect The environment ..

Ron Meador Chicken Little

Ron has never met a new mining project that he likes. But he never says where better alternative is. After 5 years I'm still waiting for Ron to tell us where a better place to mine copper is than northern Minnesota.

Almost anyplace, Mike...

...starting with Chile, Peru, Mexico, Australia. In the U.S., Arizona.

The watery environment of northern Minnesota is perhaps the worst place in the U.S. where copper could be mined in quantities to entice the industry — until market conditions change and they shift production back to the better places, whose preferability explains why the big mines are already there.

I do feel I have made this point before. Perhaps I was too oblique because I consider it so obvious.

If the world were facing a copper shortage, or the supply chains posed a national security threat, or the world price was crippling critical U.S. industries, then the  calculus might look different. But we have plenty of cheap, affordable copper from reliable suppliers and nobody considers this happy scenario likely to change.

Copper Mining In MN

Of all the arguments Mr. Meador has made against copper mining in MN this last one is the most obvious and should appeal most to classic, market driven conservatives. Demand for copper is too low to warrant new supply coming online. The mining conglomerate Freeport McMoran is about to open one of the largest copper mines in the world in Australia and can't make money on any of its output. It is true that building a copper mine requires a long lead time but there is little evidence that, if they started today, there would be any need for its output when completed. More importantly, though, the environment in northern MN is not conducive to mining--if you look at the other locations listed all of those mining operations are in deserts. Is it worth damaging the environment to extract a mineral that we don't need? Just because we can do something doesn't mean we should.

Ron, a couple of questions please.

Do you believe the EPA, DNR, MPCA have regulations that need to be met before permits can be granted? Have you and others who disagree with these agencies done exhaustive studies in this particular field? Do you want different regulations or is there nothing multiple chemical engineers, scientists, hydro experts (they came up with the regulations) can put in the permitting process to ease your concerns? How can you agree with these same Government agencies when they rule in your favor, then when they don't, they are stooges for the mining industry?

Thank you for taking time to read and reply to questions. I very seldom get folks who are against Polymet to answer these questions. The discussion usually breaks down into folks who are pro-mining hate the environment, we don't .

And a couple of answers, Joe

I have never said that these agencies or their staffers are stooges for the mining industry.

However, I do think that's a fair characterization of some legislators who attempt to interfere with the regulatory process, and of certain other experts and advocates in the arena who pretend to be independent actors committed to economic development, etc.

I assume our environmental agencies are staffed with professionals who try to do a competent job in difficult circumstances. Certainly that's true of the ones I've come to know.

However, their organizations are often underfunded, routinely subjected to political interference of both the direct and budget-cutting kind, always overmatched by industry power. Certainly it does not help that the lead agency on Minnesota mining, the Department of Natural Resources, has the dual and inherently conflicted role of promoting mines while also policing them.  As we've seen with taconite, the enforcement history with both DNR and MPCA is hardly exemplary, but that's a different kind of mining with much lower long-term risk.

When the PolyMet project was first proposed I wanted to believe — and said so in writing, sincerely, more than once — that it could prove itself as the first sulfide mining operation in the world to open, operate and close without causing lasting and substantial environmental harm. (Also, I toured the reprocessing plant with PolyMet managers and thought the plan to repurpose it was extremely cool.) And I would still welcome that success, although I have come to think the chances are essentially zero.

This is different from saying that mines don't have to meet certain standards to qualify for permits — which would be a stupid thing to say and also is not the issue, as you well know. The issue is that the permitting requirements have consistently proved inadequate to prevent major and enduring harm all over this country, even in modern times.

Joe, the reason I rarely reply to comments in this space is that I've already had my say up above. I made an exception to answer Mike Martin, because I felt he raised a question that I might not have addressed well enough in the past. I've made a second for you because you're such a dependably regular commenter — even though you are typically arguing, as today, with points I never made.

Thanks for the reply.

If Polymet passes the permitting process (even though you don't agree with current standards), then they should be allowed to mine. That is the law. I have a hard time believing the DNR with a budget over 1,100M, is underfunded but that is up for debate. In your opinion there is nothing Polymet can do to mine safely (many here on this site agree). Thankfully the final say will be the agencies in charge of granting permits and the experts who set the requirements. With the new administration, mining has a better shot at going to work. In your opinion bad, in my opinion good.

Bristol Bay reversal

Ron,

Thanks for keeping us updated on this mining situation that is out of our region, but not our foodshed.

A couple of points you raised were particularly important, interesting and deserve highlighting:

1. "The congressional delegation, all Republican, takes the temporarily safe line that Alaska shouldn’t trade one resource for another — precious metals for fisheries — and that if Pebble can’t operate without harm, it shouldn’t go forward." Without this mine and others, precious metals might get more expensive (dyi, high cost has always encouraged efficiencies), there will never be another clean, relatively sustainable fishery like Bristol Bay. I think the Alaskan Republicans are thinking intelligently about this situation, food vs. cheap smart phones.

2. Given that the current EPA appears to be changing direction in favor of low regulation mining regardless of cost to food safety, livilhoods and local needs, I appreciate that your article shows the other citizen and business interests that are stepping up to fight this battle as our federal government becomes unreliable in protecting us from dangerous and unreversal projects that will only bring temporary societal benefit while risking the whole enchilada!

I greatly appreciate your thoughtful coverage of environmental issues.

David Washburn

I will add

once again those materials can be economically recycled.there is no need to mine. The copper industry even says so. It is not a question of delaying anything. It is a question rethinking the entire process. State over site is weak. That is the reason state over site is called into question again and again. The mining is just not worth the expense is the reality of the situation. And for the most part capital gained would leave the state. Make all the arguments for mining you would like but the reality presents a high bar to overcome. But I guess that would depend on the reality of the motivation for mining a person sees. I see none.