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But last week, Democratic senators from California, Oregon and Washington wrote to President Barack Obama to express concern about the potential effect of the mine on their salmon fishing industries and demanding a “valid, sound science based approach to ensuring that Bristol Bay salmon are safeguarded.” They said the Bristol Bay fishery generates the equivalent of nearly 4,400 full-time jobs for Alaskans and about 6,000 full-time jobs in Washington, Oregon and California.
The Pebble Partnership has taken issue with how the EPA has conducted its watershed assessment. The agency’s approach relies on conceptual models based on publicly available information on the Pebble proposal. The EPA has maintained that it is not studying a specific mine, but rather the effects of “reasonably foreseeable” mining operations in the region.
The partner companies “cautiously” accepted the EPA’s first plan to study the watershed in 2011, Magee said, because the scope focused generally on large-scale development in the area rather than hard-rock mining in particular.
“It’s moved a long way since that time,” he said.
The partnership’s own mining plans are hypothetical, since the developers will undoubtedly encounter environmental issues they did not anticipate, said Bob Waldrop, executive director of the Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association. Though the exact location is technically unknown until the Pebble Partnership files a permit application, opponents say there are only so many places in the area where mining could feasibly occur.
“There’s no plan that can change the location of this mine,” Waldrop said.
The EPA began its watershed assessment after nine federally recognized Bristol Bay tribes petitioned the agency to use its veto authority under the Clean Water Act to pre-empt the mining project. The EPA claims it may exercise its so-called 404(c) authority before a permit application is submitted, while an application is pending or after one has been issued.
In its history, the agency has vetoed 13 projects using that section of the law, including just one during President Barack Obama’s tenure. That veto, which retroactively revoked a mountaintop mining permit for a West Virginia project in 2011, drew fierce denunciations from coal-state lawmakers as well as Republican lawmakers who regularly criticize what they view as excesses by the EPA.
Tom Collier, who served as chief of staff at the Interior Department under President Bill Clinton, said the EPA’s previous vetoes occurred either during the permitting process or right after a permit was granted, leaving no precedent for such a decision to be made before a permit application is submitted.
The partner companies want to go through the environmental review process established under the National Environmental Policy Act (PL 91-190) as any other proposed mine would, Northern Dynasty Minerals’ Magee said.
“We don’t really understand why there are those who believe we should not enter that process,” he said.