House panel asks watchdogs to investigate Army Corps of Engineers’ review of Alaskan mine project

House panel asks watchdogs to investigate Army Corps of Engineers’ review of Alaskan mine project

The House Oversight Committee Monday called for two inspector general offices to investigate the Army Corps of Engineers’ recent environmental review of the controversial Pebble Mine project proposed for Bristol Bay, Alaska.

In a detailed letter sent to the inspector general offices in the Department of Defense and the Army Corps of Engineers, the committee stated that committee members are “concerned that the Army Corps expedited the Clean Water Act permitting and (National Environmental Protection Act) review process at the expense of a thorough scientific review.”

The controversial gold and copper mine proposed in Alaska was given a major push just two weeks ago when the Corps issued a final report concluding the Pebble Mine project would not cause long-term harm to one of the world’s largest remaining salmon runs.

The Army Corps declined to comment on the letter, citing the ongoing permitting process in saying it would be “inappropriate” to do so.

“We have received many media inquiries and questions from interested parties relating to the content of the Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS). The FEIS is now available for review by any interested party,” said John Budnik, a spokesman for the Army Corps. “The Corps’ Record of Decision, when complete, will be a publically available document.”

The findings in the recent Corps report were a sharp reversal from the Obama-era Environmental Protection Agency’s conclusions, which essentially blocked progress on the mine because of environmental concerns, including the potential for permanent damage to the pristine Bristol Bay watershed.

Monday’s letter from members of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform states the Corps’ expedited timeline “appears … inappropriate for a hardrock mine of this scale, complexity, and potential regional and state environmental, social, and economic impacts — especially during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.”

The Oversight Committee letter also states that “even more concerning is that despite repeated pleas and requests from federal, state, local, and tribal cooperating agencies and stakeholders for a more comprehensive review process, it appears that the Army Corps set aside thorough scientific review in favor of an expedited permitting timeline.”

The recent report by the Army Corps was a major triumph for the project’s developers, illustrating the Trump administration’s opposite approach to the project from that of its predecessor. The decision echoed other environmental reversals the administration has ordered on decisions from the previous administration.

The new Corps report found that the colossal mine and its development “would not be expected to have a measurable effect on fish numbers and result in long-term changes to the health of the commercial fisheries in Bristol Bay.”

That finding contrasted sharply with the conclusion of the Obama administration. In 2014, after three years of peer-reviewed study by more than 100 scientists, the Obama administration’s EPA invoked a rarely used provision of the Clean Water Act to try to protect Bristol Bay after finding that a mine “would result in complete loss of fish habitat due to elimination, dewatering, and fragmentation of streams, wetlands, and other aquatic resources” in some areas of the bay.

“All of these losses would be irreversible,” the agency said at the time.

The Bristol Bay watershed and area are regarded as one of the world’s most important salmon fisheries, producing nearly half of the world’s annual wild sockeye salmon catch. Its ecological resources also support 4,000-year-old indigenous cultures, as well as about 14,000 full- and part-time jobs, according to the EPA’s 2014 report.

The new Oversight Committee letter, citing previous CNN investigative reports, raises questions about the findings by the Army Corps: “This reversal appears to have been motivated by political influence and not by scientific analysis.”

Citing a CNN report, the Oversight letter states: “It has been reported that EPA staff disclosed that this decision was made at EPA on June 27, 2019, a day after the President met with Alaska’s Governor Mike Dulvaney on Air Force One, which raises questions about whether EPA’s decision to withdraw the Proposed Determination was arbitrary and capricious.”

The new letter from the Oversight Committee was signed by Chairwoman Carolyn B. Maloney, Democrat of New York, and Reps. Jackie Speier and Harley Rouda, both Democrats of California.

A spokesman from Pebble, which is owned by the Canadian company Northern Dynasty Minerals, said the company is not opposed to any investigations.

“We welcome any such review — especially one as baseless as this,” said Pebble spokesman Mike Heatwole.

“The (Corps’) review was thorough and transparent. The review was not rushed,” Heatwole added.

The Pebble Mine proposal has recently been garnering national attention. Last week, Donald Trump Jr. and Vice President Mike Pence’s former top aide called on the Trump administration to block the project, citing the Obama administration’s findings that it would cause permanent damage to a highly sensitive and critical salmon fishery.

On Sunday, presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden said that if he’s elected his administration will stop the project.

After the House letter became public Monday, Biden, referencing a CNN investigation, wrote on Twitter: “Bristol Bay is no place for a mine — our administration decided that in 2014.”

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