October 23, 2019

Chairs DeFazio, Napolitano Statements from Hearing on Pebble Mine Project

Washington, D.C. — The following are opening remarks, as prepared for delivery, from Chair of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure Peter DeFazio (D-OR), and Chair of the Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment Grace F. Napolitano (D-CA) during today’s hearing titled: “The Pebble Mine Project: Process and Potential Impacts.”

Chair DeFazio:

Let me state, right from the start, that the Pebble Mine proposal is a bad idea made even worse by the sham review process currently underway.

First, let’s talk about the proposed location of this mine.

The Bristol Bay Watershed, where this mine is proposed, is one of the last pristine environments remaining in the world. 

Protection of Bristol Bay is critical to native Alaskan villages that have lived in this area for over 4,000 years, to the fishers and businesses that rely on the salmon run for their livelihood, and to future generations of Alaskans. 

The quality of the Bristol Bay environment is also hugely important to the economy of the region. According to today’s testimony, the Bristol Bay fisheries support about 14,000 full and part time jobs and generate over $480 million in direct annual economic expenditures and sales. 

Similarly, this pristine environment also supports approximately $1.5 billion in economic activity to the regional economy, including 150 sportfishing or hunting related businesses that operate in the watershed with about 30,000 sportfishing trips taken to the region each year, as well as an additional $12.4 million in hunting trips and an additional $34.5 million in sales from wildlife viewing activities.

Now, the Pebble Partnership will also try to sell this mine on its potential for job creation.  I have heard the estimates that the Pebble Partnership is making on the thousands of jobs the mine will create nationwide, and the estimated $400 million in additional revenues to the State of Alaska that the mine could produce.  However, I also understand that these numbers are based on the largest mine proposal that the Partnership floated in 2011 and that the Obama administration attempted to veto in 2016. 

Maybe Mr. Collier can enlighten us on the job creation numbers from the slimmed down proposal he is selling today; however, I would suggest that any jobs created from this mining proposal will be to the detriment of the lives and livelihoods of native Alaskans, fisheries, and other commercial entities that rely on the pristine environment there today – so, I ask, is it worth the risk?

Second, let’s talk about the unprecedented scale of this mining proposal. 

Even at the smallest scale under review, the footprint of the Pebble mine would be unprecedented for an open pit mine in such a pristine environment.

As noted in testimony today, the Pebble proposal would require the removal and treatment of over 1 billion tons of bulk mining tailings, the capturing and treatment of approximately 13,000 gallons per minute of contaminated mine wastewater, and all of this behind 5 constructed dams in one of the most dynamic environments on earth.

Two of these dams are proposed to exceed 545 feet each – which is roughly the same height as the Grand Coulee Dam, in Washington State.  So, the proposal would be to construct at least 2 new Grand Coulee-type dams, on lands that are prone to seismic activity, in an environment that is facing some of the greatest challenges from climate change on Earth.  And, Mr. Collier, you will be responsible for treating this mining wastewater, forever, using what others describe today as untested technologies that exist nowhere else in the world at this scale. 

Mr. Collier, you also say in your testimony that the mine will “do no damage to the fishery” and may, in fact “have a positive impact on some fish habitats.”  Give me a break – how to you improve upon a pristine environment?  And, the consequence of you getting this wrong are catastrophic and forever – and I would agree with many of the panelists here today, not worth the risk.

Third, let’s talk about the shell game that is going on with attempts to get approval of a project that just doesn’t pencil out – unless you plan to come back and build the rest later. 

Today’s testimony includes the insights of a mining industry specialist – someone whose livelihood has depended on the approval of mining operations, worldwide – who shows how the current mining proposal being advocated by the Pebble Partnership and under review by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, is a sham.  This testimony demonstrates what I have been hearing all along – that this “smaller, smarter mine”, as Mr. Collier describes it, is not economically feasible – and actually starts with an estimated negative net present value of $3 billion. 

Now, I don’t run a multi-billion company, but if I did, I am not sure how long I would remain employed if I started $3 billion in the red. But, I also understand that Mr. Collier may not have to worry about this, because the press is reporting that if he is able to get approval of the permit for this mine, he will personally walk away with a $12 million performance bonus.

But a $3 billion shortfall in revenue does require us to question the viability of this project, its ability to protect this environment over the long run, or the motives of the mining company on the need to expand the scale of mining to make this a profitable endeavor.

I also want to express my deep disappointment with the Corps of Engineers on their track record of review for this project to date.  If the Corps continues its current path to rush approval of this project, I believe this will be a stain on the reputation of this proud institution, which continues to serve as our nation’s premier water resources agency. 

I would remind the Corps of the words of the former head of EPA, Scott Pruitt, who said “... It is my judgment at this time that any mining projects in the region likely pose a risk to the abundant natural resources that exist there. Until we know the full extent of that risk, those natural resources and world-class fisheries deserve the utmost protection.”

When you are on the opposite side of Scott Pruitt – who was no friend of the environment – you have to wonder.

I recognize the tremendous political pressure the leadership of the Corps must be facing from this administration to rush approval of this project, but I call on the Corps to start upholding its independent, statutory responsibilities, and stop acting like a cheerleader for this project.

This Administration is once again putting private industry wants at the top of its agenda, risking the health and safety of our nation’s ecosystem, the ancestral home for Alaska Natives, and the destruction of the nation’s most productive salmon habitat.

We need to stop this shell game and understand that a process that purposefully looks at only part of the picture, misses the entire view. 

The end goal for the Pebble Limited Partnership isn’t for 1/8th of the deposit, it is for 100% of the deposit.  That is what the EPA and the Corps need to review - and reviewing anything less is a disservice to the American people.

Chair DeFazio remarks as delivered can be found here.

Chair Napolitano:

Good morning. Today’s hearing is on a very important issue with significant impacts for the nation.

While the topic of the Pebble Mine project may seem local to Alaska, the impacts of a mining project in Bristol Bay may be felt as far away as Washington, Oregon, California – states with a robust salmon fishing industry – and the rest of the world.

The predominant Alaska Native cultures present in the Nushagak  and Kvichak  River watersheds—the Yup’ik , Dena’ina  Alutiiq—are two of the last intact, sustainable, salmon-based cultures in the world.

It is for these reasons it is important that the Pebble Mine Project be examined thoroughly with the best science - before it proceeds. Today, we will talk about the process for permitting the Pebble Mine Project.

Like any process, the outcome of it is as good as the inputs. In this case, it is not clear that the scientific data is being properly reviewed or considered. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has a significant role in the permitting process for this mine, even though the Army Corps of Engineers is the primary lead on permitting. EPA should be participating in a robust review process for a mine that was once described as the largest open pit mine in the world. Even though the current proposal for the mine focuses on a smaller-scaled mine, the EPA has an important role in evaluating the potential impacts of the latest proposal.

It now seems like the EPA is backing off of reviewing the permitting process in a significant manner. Specifically, on July 1, 2019, the EPA expressed concern that the Draft Environmental Impact Statement underestimated impacts and risks of the Pebble Mine Project to water resources. However, on July 30, the EPA chose to withdraw protections for Bristol Bay under Section 404(c) of the Clean Water Act. What happened in 30 days to change EPA’s mind?

We need to get to the bottom of this and find out why EPA has changed its mind about the potential impacts of this mine. The process seems flawed and I am not convinced that if we continue to let the process play out, as proponents of the mine suggest, we will end up with a final decision based on good science and data. We need evidence that this project is being properly reviewed, and so far, I have not seen that.

Chair Napolitano’s remarks as delivered can be found here.