Pebble supporters protest study

Posted: Sunday, May 23, 2010

A last-minute line item for three-quarters of a million dollars in a $3.1 billion capital budget is stirring up a ruckus between the usual suspects.

At issue is a $750,000 reappropriation to the Legislative Council summed up in a single sentence to "conduct for the Legislature an independent third-party scientific and multidisciplinary study of the potential large mine development in the Bristol Bay drainage."

The Resource Development Council and the Alaska Miners Association have both written letters to Gov. Sean Parnell asking him to exercise his line item veto authority to nix the study, which they say is clearly aimed at the Pebble mine, sets a bad precedent for future development and undermines the existing permit process.

Rep. Alan Austerman, R-Kodiak, said the item was inserted into the capital budget because he feels the unprecedented size and scope of the proposed Pebble mine may be beyond the expertise of state regulators. The measure is also backed by Senate President Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak.

"There are very few people that understand the dynamics of what this could mean environmentally to the watershed of Bristol Bay and few people can relate to the social economic issues generated with large projects," Austerman said. "What questions should we be looking at? I don't have wherewithal to ask the right questions. That would be purpose of study."

The purpose of the study is a point of contention, with the RDC, the miners association and the Pebble Partnership pointing to the vague language guiding it.

"This isn't a study, this is another attack on Pebble," said Steve Borell, the miners association executive director. "There's no question about that in anybody's mind in the mining industry. What does that do for your confidence in the legislative process if someone can get pulled out and targeted? It will happen to you next."

Austerman introduced House Concurrent Resolution 15 during the 2009 legislative session seeking $1 million in funding for a third-party review of the Pebble project by the National Academy of Sciences. The measure did not make it out of committee.

The current capital budget item does not specify who would conduct the study, nor how it would be structured without a final plan from Pebble to analyze.

HCR 15 was more specific. Along with the biological and environmental analysis, HCR 15 directed the study to assess "the known and probable cumulative environmental and socioeconomic consequences" and the "critical gaps in existing knowledge necessary to adequately understand, predict and manage the environmental and socioeconomic consequences of mineral extraction in the Bristol Bay watershed."

A similar bill, Senate Concurrent Resolution 6, also failed to make it out of committee in 2009.

The $750,000 won't go far in matching the hundreds of millions of dollars the Pebble Partnership has spent since 2004 collecting environmental baseline data. The NAS performed a study on the cumulative effects of North Slope oil and gas development for $1.6 million in 2003.

Austerman said he tried for $900,000, and the study "could start on socio-economic issues."

"I don't believe there's time to do a complete study we're looking for before they submit the application, although they've delayed for sometime now," he said. "It's possible we won't have that information."

Paula Dobbyn, Trout Unlimited Alaska Program director of communications, said the study would "address a multitude of issues that need a hard look."

"We feel given the size and magnitude of the project location, there is a lot at stake," she said. "The state agencies want to and will do their very best. The fact is there is a lot of information to be gathered and looked at by a group of experts not vested in the outcome of the project."

Dobbyn said the National Academy of Sciences would be "well equipped" to conduct a high quality study that would be "a way to step back and allow an objective group to take a look before any decisions are made by the state."

The RDC, miners association and Pebble Partnership said the National Environmental Policy Act already provides for an independent review of Pebble's environmental impact statement that will accompany its proposal.

The NEPA process begins when Pebble applies for its first federal permit, likely from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and will be coordinated by the state Department of Natural Resources. The claim is on state land, and the partnership currently pays nearly $500,000 per year in royalties.

The partnership expects to initiate the process in late 2010 or early 2011, and for it to last more than three years, with at least 67 major permits required along with scores of others.

The state will select a third party to audit Pebble's environmental impact statement and its data, now being collected by dozens of environmental science research companies. The partnership must pay for the study, but has no say in the selection process.

Austerman, whose district includes Kodiak and areas bordering Bristol Bay to be impacted by the Pebble mine, said while he is no longer a "fence sitter," he stopped short of saying he is fully against the Pebble mine.

"I haven't taken that total position yet," he said. "All the history of open pit sulpheric mines across the country has been damage. Do we have the capabilities at (state agencies) to go through the permit process to decide if it's feasible or not?"

Austerman said public opinion in his district is nearly evenly split between those firmly against Pebble, those firmly for Pebble and those sitting on the fence.

"It's fairly well split between the three," he said. "Nobody's got an overriding opinion up there."

Pebble Partnership spokesman Mike Heatwole said the lack of scope "causes us a lot of concern."

"What is it trying to accomplish?" he said. "If the desire is to know the socio-economic and environmental impact, that is what NEPA is designed for. That's what you get in an EIS. Is this a pre-NEPA NEPA? What precedent are we setting?"

Dobbyn said it was "somewhat disingenuous" of the partnership to oppose the third-party study after previously stating it wouldn't object to an independent review.

Heatwole said the partnership welcomes anything that examines the Alaska permitting process, but opposes an open-ended, unguided study of Pebble's impact that overlaps what's already required under NEPA.

"We have stated publicly we would support a look at Alaska's permitting process," Heatwole said. "We hear a lot about it in our public discussions. The broader issue for the resource community would be what is the efficiency of our program compared to other jurisdictions? That's a far more valuable use of state money."

Parnell has until June 9 to approve the capital budget. The fiscal year starts on July 1.

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