Legislators spar over Pebble study

Posted: Tuesday, October 05, 2010

A legislative subcommittee tasked with crafting a third-party study of the potential impact of the Pebble mine met Sept. 28 in Anchorage, but the only thing legislators could agree on was the need to have another meeting.

Before determining the actual parameters of the study -- to be paid for with a $750,000 appropriation in the latest capital budget -- the six-member subcommittee of the legislative council must first decide whether to sole-source the contract to the National Academy of Sciences or to put the project out for bids with a request for proposals.

No date for the next meeting was set, but it will take place before the Nov. 2 elections and will allow for information to be presented by the National Academy of Sciences, the state Department of Natural Resources and to allow for public testimony.

Rep. Alan Austerman of Kodiak, who introduced legislation that failed in 2009 to appropriate money to the National Academy of Sciences for a Pebble study, continued to push for NAS in testimony to the subcommittee.

The subcommittee is chaired by House Speaker Mike Chenault, R-Kenai, and includes Rep. Bill Stoltze, R-Chugiak, Rep. David Guttenberg, D-Fairbanks, Senate President Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, Sen. Dennis Egan, D-Juneau and Sen. Lyman Hoffman, D-Bethel.

Austerman testified that he preferred NAS to conduct the study to inform the Legislature on "what questions to ask" about the Pebble mine, located west of Iliamna. The mine faces strong opposition from the fishing communities around Bristol Bay who fear the project could pollute the world's largest salmon run.

Chenault told Austerman he had concerns about the precedent it would set for a third-party review of a project outside the normal reviews of state and federal permitting processes.

"Are we not being repetitious in asking for another study?" Chenault said. "At the end of the conversation, my biggest problem is that while I agree with you that I'm in favor of mineral extraction in Alaska done responsibly and properly, at what point do we stop the studying process?"

Chenault noted that the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, already requires extensive third-party review of scientific data and project details submitted by industry.

"We already require a lot of what's being asked for in this proposal," Chenault said. "Do we put another layer on this, and once we do it on one project whether it's Pebble or any of them, aren't we going to end up requiring it on any project, whether it's a gold mine or a coalfield or a bridge across the inlet or a pipeline?"

Austerman responded that he was unfamiliar with the review requirements of the NEPA or state permit process. He also implied that any third-party review submitted by the Pebble Partnership would raise questions of impartiality.

"They're paying a third party to go through their information and look at it for them," Austerman. "That raises the same basic questions everyone else has, who is doing the third parties and who is paying for them? The study we're proposing has nothing to do with profitability for anybody on either side of the issue."

NEPA 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. Corps of Engineers, and will be coordinated by DNR. 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 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 study and its data, now being collected by dozens of environmental science research companies. The partnership must pay for the study and has no say in the selection process.

Egan asked Austerman whether the National Academy of Sciences was an unbiased source. Egan represents Juneau, which is celebrating the long-delayed opening of the Kensington gold mine after years battling the federal government all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

"How do I answer some of my constituents that say the National Academy is an arm of the environmental groups and it hasn't ever approved of a project?" Egan asked.

That sentiment was echoed by Rep. Mike Kelly of Fairbanks, who phoned in to the meeting and blasted the proposed study, saying he would "cut its throat" if he could and noting a recent study that ranked Alaska dead last in business-friendly conditions.

Kelly said if the study goes forward it should go out for bid, not as a sole-source contract to the National Academy of Sciences.

"I think the National Academy is very much, in my opinion, suspect as to whether they are loaded with anti-development people," Kelly said, adding that he noticed the Pebble opponents celebrating Gov. Sean Parnell's decision to allow the third-party study.

Opponents of Pebble believe the study will show the mine is incompatible with the surrounding region.

"I believe that when we decided to do this, unwisely in my opinion, the wrong people were cheering in the streets to make me happy about this study," Kelly said. "We've got a president, an EPA (Environmental Protection Agency), a Congress that is no drill, no permits, no bridge the belugas are more important than the people of Anchorage, the polar bears are more important than the airport at Kaktovik. I want to weigh in heavily for the pro-jobs, pro-development part of this. Adding another layer to this that's another stumbling block, in my opinion, is irresponsible and shortsighted."

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