Alaska’s mining industry can’t have it both ways
The Pebble Partnership has grabbed headlines recently by attacking an EPA scientist and claiming EPA somehow violated federal law by communicating with Alaskans.
It’s all a phony story, of course, to pump up fear around the bogey man of “federal overreach.” But there’s a healthy dose of irony here, because while the Pebble people are crying foul on EPA, the proponent of the Chuitna coal strip mine in Upper Cook Inlet — Delaware-based PacRim Coal — has been actively working behind closed doors with the Corps of Engineers and other government agencies to get needed permits.
Tom Collier is the lawyer and the CEO of the Pebble Partnership who concocted the idea EPA violated the Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA), an obscure federal law passed during the Nixon Era to promote more transparent government. When Mr. Collier worked for Bill Clinton in the Department of Interior, he got hit with allegations similar to the one he’s hurling now, and he apparently got some ideas.
So, when the major money behind Pebble — Anglo America — bolted due to overwhelming local, state and national opposition, the Pebble people got desperate, and decided to throw a Hail-Mary: they alleged that communications between EPA and various Alaskans amounted to the formation of an “advisory committee,” triggering a whole slew of procedural requirements.
But why would the Pebble people try to stitch together such an outrageous story out of the ether? Well, because the Pebble people know if they can drag the farce out long enough, maybe a more compliant administration in D.C. will ignore the countless Alaskans opposed to Pebble open pit mine.
And there’s another reason: the Outside corporations behind Pebble are mad because the EPA had the audacity to do its job, and to use the clear and unambiguous authority Congress granted it under the Clean Water Act to protect Alaska’s wild salmon streams and the people and economies they support.
And that’s what makes the situation around the Chuitna coal strip mine so egregious. PacRim Coal is the sole-investor behind the Chuitna coal strip mine in Upper Cook Inlet. It’s a privately held company backed by Texas billionaires and organized in Delaware, so they can keep their finances secret. And they want to mine through miles and miles of wild salmon habitat in Upper Cook Inlet to send coal to China.
Now, despite massive structural shifts in Pacific basin coal markets — shifts that make the Chuitna mine economically infeasible under even the rosiest scenarios — PacRim wants to spend millions of our state and federal tax dollars so our agencies can process their permits.
Because maybe dirty coal will be sexy again, and PacRim will be able to flip its permits to an unwitting buyer.
But coal is dying, and coal giants such as Arch and Peabody are going bankrupt, leaving states with big clean-up bills for their mess. Nonetheless, representatives of PacRim Coal have been embedded with the federal Corps of Engineers and other government agencies for years developing the project’s Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) – arguably the most important document in the mine permitting process.
This isn’t Pebble, where Alaskans’ participation in your run-of-the-mill public comment periods and public advocacy campaigns is being demonized; rather, this is numerous in-person, closed-door meetings, where PacRim Coal got to hear what all the government people were thinking, got to see what they were writing, got to express their views, and — as a result — presumably got to shape draft documents that will not be released for public review. Because the public has been barred from all these meetings, we can never know what influence PacRim has really had on the permitting process.
As the mining industry kicks and screams to retain its massive subsidies in our current fiscal crisis, the Pebble people are desperate, for obvious reasons: Alaskans recognize Bristol Bay salmon as an irreplaceable resource that doesn’t mesh with massive open-pit mining.
But for the Alaska mining industry to cry foul when EPA talks to Alaskans about their Pebble concerns — and when PacRim Coal is perfectly comfortable sitting in closed-door meetings with government officials during the most important permitting discussions for the Chuitna coal strip mine — it seems the mining industry is talking out of both sides of its mouth.
Bob Shavelson is the executive director of Cook Inletkeeper, a community-based nonprofit dedicated to protecting clean water, healthy salmon and democratic participation in the Cook Inlet watershed.