Former defense secretary to investigate EPA evaluation of Alaska mine proposal

M.D. Kittle
Posted: Mar 25, 2015 1:18 PM
Former defense secretary to investigate EPA evaluation of Alaska mine proposal

By M.D.Kittle |

A former defense secretary in the Clinton administration plans to investigate the Environmental Protection Agency’s controversial evaluation of a potential mining project in the Bristol Bay watershed in Alaska — an evaluation, critics say, was heavy-handed and employed bad science.

William S. Cohen this week announced that his firm, the Cohen Group, assisted by the law firm DLA Piper Global, will conduct an independent review to determine whether the EPA acted fairly.

Cohen has been retained by the Pebble Limited Partnership, developers of the proposed mine that has become the focus of environmentalist angst.

AP file photo

INVESTIGATING THE EPA: Former Defense Secretary William S. Cohen will investigate the EPA’s controversial evaluation of a proposed mine project in Alaska.

Cohen will evaluate the fairness of the EPA’s actions and decisions in its contentious process based upon a “thorough assessment of the facts and informed by his experience as Secretary of Defense as well as his 24 years as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate,” according to a press release. He will have full discretion as to the “means and manner” of carrying out the review to “ensure that it is thorough and unbiased.”

The EPA is the subject of an investigation by its own Office of Inspector General, as well as inquiries and hearings by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. More recently, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee has questioned the EPA’s move to preemptively kill a copper and gold mine project that would create thousands of jobs before PLP has the opportunity to present its full plan to regulators.

Documents obtained under Freedom of Information Act requests raise serious questions about the EPA’s conduct.

Cohen said a condition of his accepting the review is he will have complete independence in following the evidence wherever it may lead.

“I have agreed to undertake this effort after reviewing a wide range of available documents, including those produced in response to FOIA requests, that persuaded me that legitimate questions exist which merit an in-depth, independent review,” he said. “To ensure a comprehensive and unbiased evaluation, I welcome hearing from, and will be reaching out to, interested stakeholders, and I will carefully consider all points of view. I invite those who have information relating to the issues under review to meet with my team so that we might receive all relevant information for consideration.”

PLP has long said it welcomes a thorough review of their proposals, but they want the opportunity to present the information through due process, which they believe has been denied via the EPA’s preemptive push to kill the project.

“Our message is about standing up for fair and due process,” PLP spokesman Mike Heatwole told Watchdog last August.

In July, EPA unveiled a proposed list of crippling restrictions that could severely limit development of the proposed Pebble Mine project in Alaska’s bush country, an operation that developers say would create 1,000 direct jobs, and thousands more indirectly, and as much as $180 million in revenue for the state.

The agency is invoking a section of the Clean Water Act, a section that could allow the EPA to stop the mine proposal before the developers are able to present their plan to state and federal regulatory agencies.

“EPA has never pre-emptively stopped a project in the 42-year history of the Clean Water Act,” Heatwole told KTUU TV in Anchorage Tuesday. “And the precedent that would be established outside of the permitting process is of grave concern, not just to Pebble, but all of the statewide trade and business associations, and many national organizations.

The EPA’s position in Alaska has proved chilling to mine development across the country, the latest being a proposed $1.5 billion iron ore mine in northern Wisconsin, also expected to create good-paying jobs in an economically distressed region of the state.

Dennis McLerran, regional administrator for the EPA’s Region 10, has said the dangers of even a smaller mine in the Bristol Bay region’s “fragile ecosystem” would be devastating.

He told reporters the EPA is trying to protect the world’s largest salmon fishery, where half of the world’s sockeye salmon population is said to live, from what would be “one of the world’s largest open pit mine developments ever conceived of.”

“What we have here is an extraordinarily large mine in an extraordinarily important fisher location,” he told the Anchorage TV station. “So this is an extraordinary use of authority that we use very infrequently, very sparingly, but we use it when it’s really important.”

Pebble filed a lawsuit in May against the agency. In its complaint, the company asserts the EPA doesn’t possess the authority to block or limit the mine.

“Here, nothing in Section 404 of the (Clean Water) Act or elsewhere in the statute suggests that Congress intended for EPA to arrogate to itself an authority that essentially bans an activity — mining — before it is even proposed by an applicant,” the lawsuit states.

EPA officials have said they already have the science to show what a theoretical mine could do to the region. But that science has been blasted as faulty by several experts in peer review.

“This is a lot bigger than Pebble,” PLP says on its website. 

“If the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is successful in denying Pebble the right to even submit a permit application to undergo state and federal  review, it sets a precedent and takes control for zoning away from Alaska.  This would give the EPA control over the Alaska economy,” the developer asserts in asking viewers to “take 30 seconds to send a message to the EPA asking them to stand down and reconsider their (pre-emptive) action.”