Darrell Issa Subpoenas EPA for Documents on Blocked Alaska 'Pebble Mine' Project

On Thursday House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-CA) issued a subpoena to Environment Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy for documents related to the agency's unprecedented use of an obscure section of the Clean Water Act to effectively veto the development of the Pebble Mine project near Bristol Bay, Alaska.

In his subpoena, Chairman Issa requested "documents and communications relating to the EPA's permit review, including any action under section 404(c) of the Clean Water Act, in Bristol Bay, Alaska."   

On March 14, Chairman Issa, Subcommittee Chairman James Lankford (R-OK), and Subcommittee Chairman Jim Jordan (R-OH) "sent a letter to EPA Inspector General Arthur Elkins, Jr. requesting an investigation into the EPA's decision to rely on a rarely-used provision of the Clean Water Act to preemptively veto the proposed Pebble Project," according to a press release from the committee issued on Friday.

Two weeks prior to Issa's request to Elkins, on February 28, Administrator McCarthy announced in a press release that the agency "is initiating a process under the Clean Water Act to identify appropriate options to protect the world's largest sockeye salmon fishery in Bristol Bay, Alaska from the potentially destructive impacts of the proposed Pebble Mine."

Fox News reported that the Pebble Mine area contains gold, copper, and molybdenum deposits that could be worth "more than $500 billion" under current market prices. Rod Thiessen, CEO of Northern Dynasty Minerals, a major shareholder in the Pebble Partnership, a business that has the rights to develop the project, said in 2012 it has the "potential to be one of the great metal producers of the 21st century."

The Pebble Partnership has spent over $107 million since 2007 in soil, water, and air studies to demonstrate to the EPA that the project can be undertaken without harming the local environment.

But the EPA appears determined to stop the project and has resorted to the use of an obscure section of the Clean Water Act to accomplish that purpose.

Under the Clean Water Act, the placement of "dredge or fill material into wetlands, lakes and streams" requires a permit from the Army Corps of Engineers. The EPA claims that Section 404(c) of the Clean Water Act authorizes it to initiate a consultation process with the Army Corps of Engineers on projects prior to their issuance of such permits. Once they initiate that process, the Corps cannot issue permits that allow project developers to dredge or fill materials until the process is completed.

Administrator McCarthy announced the initiation of that consultation process for the Pebble Mine project on February 28, effectively shutting down any further development for several months at the minimum. 

In January, the EPA released its "Assessment of Potential Mining Impacts on Salmon Ecosystems of Bristol Bay, Alaska." According to the agency, "[t]he assessment indicates that the proposed Pebble Mine would likely cause irreversible destruction of streams that support salmon and other important fish species, as well as extensive areas of wetlands, ponds and lakes."

After Administrator McCarthy's announcement on the effective veto on February 28, Tom Collier, CEO of the Pebble Partnership, released a statement saying the EPA's action was "a major overreach onto an asset of the state of Alaska." He added that "[t]he steps taken by the EPA to date have gone well outside of its normal practice, have been biased throughout, and have been unduly influenced by environmental advocacy organizations."

Alaska's two Senators are split on the project. Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) opposes the EPA's action, calling it a "preemptive veto." Senator Mark Begich (D-AK), who is up for re-election this year, "pressed the administration to halt the project on the grounds it could affect fishing jobs across the Pacific Northwest," according to the Washington Post.

The Obama administration fully supports the EPA actions. Shortly after Administrator McCarthy's announcement on February 28, White House press secretary Jay Carney said "the White House strongly supports that decision by the EPA... The step is consistent with the president's commitment in the State of the Union to protect pristine American places for future generations."


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