Two Things Media Should Note About Inspector General Report Vindicating EPA's Pebble Mine Review
Research ››› ››› ANDREW SEIFTER
A new report by the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) Inspector General (IG) has validated the EPA's review of the proposed Pebble Mine project in Alaska's Bristol Bay, concluding that there is "no evidence of bias in how the EPA conducted" its review nor any evidence that "the EPA predetermined the assessment outcome." Media coverage of the IG report should explain that the inspector general's involvement was requested by the company that wants to build the mine and backed by the official it hired to criticize the EPA's review, and that the House Science Committee Chairman blasting the IG report previously praised an EPA IG report when the results were more critical of the EPA.
Inspector General Upholds EPA Assessment Of Pebble Mine
Pebble Limited Partnership Sought Approval To Build Massive Mining Project In Bristol Bay. The Pebble Limited Partnership (PLP), which is now solely owned by Northern Dynasty Minerals (the other major partners have ended their involvement), has been seeking permits to mine gold, copper and molybdenum in the Bristol Bay region of Southwest Alaska, a region "untouched by development" for thousands of years, according to the National Wildlife Federation. The region's residents expressed concern that the excavation project dubbed the Pebble Mine, which would be one of the world's largest open pit mines and produce a massive amount of toxic waste material, would put its $1.5 billion salmon industry at risk. [Alaska Dispatch News, 4/7/15; NWF.org, accessed 1/14/16; Center for American Progress, 6/27/13; Alaska Dispatch News, 5/9/13]
EPA Invoked Section 404(c) Of Clean Water Act To Protect The Region's Fisheries. In response to petitions from tribes and other stakeholders, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) conducted a scientific review of the suitability of large-scale mining in the Bristol Bay watershed. The agency determined that a mine in the region would have significant impacts under normal operations and could have "catastrophic effects on fishery resources" in the case of an accident, and has initiated a process under Section 404(c) of the Clean Water Act to place restrictions on mining in the region. [EPA.gov, accessed 1/14/16; 2/28/14]
IG Report On EPA's Review: "We Found No Evidence Of Bias Or A Predetermined Outcome." On January 13, the EPA's Office of Inspector General released a report stating that "obtainable records show EPA followed required procedures without bias or predetermination." The report added that the EPA "met requirements for peer review, provided for public involvement throughout the peer review process, and followed procedures for reviewing and verifying the quality of information in the assessment before releasing it to the public." The IG did identify one "possible misuse of position" by an EPA employee who has since retired, but stated that the employee's actions were not evidence that "any law was violated." [EPA.gov, 1/13/16]
IG Report Was Requested By The Company That Wants To Build The Mine And Backed By The Official It Hired To Criticize EPA
Pebble Mine Developers Attacked IG Report As "Embarrassing Failure" That "Whitewashes Serious Bias" At The EPA. In a press release, Northern Dynasty Minerals claimed that the inspector general report "whitewashes serious bias at [the] agency." The press release stated that Northern Dynasty President and CEO Rob Thiessen and Pebble Limited Partnership CEO Tom Collier each "expressed disappointment" with the report, and quoted Collier declaring that "[t]he EPA Inspector General's report is an embarrassing failure on its part to understand ... that EPA acted improperly with regard to Pebble and was biased in its actions." [PR Newswire, 1/13/16]
Developers Previously Flooded Inspector General With Letters Demanding -- And Then Seeking To Influence -- The Investigation. As the Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported on January 13, "The inquiry by the inspector general was requested by the Pebble Partnership plus conservative Republicans in Congress critical of the EPA's assessment." Indeed, when the Office of Inspector General announced that it would investigate the matter in May 2014, Northern Dynasty Minerals put out a press release noting that the company had already "submitted three letters to the EPA Inspector General" raising complaints about the EPA's conduct, and that the company was "thankful that the IG's office has initiated this action." In May 2015, E&E News noted that developers of the proposed mine had "flooded U.S. EPA's Office of Inspector General with letters accusing the agency of working with environmentalists to stop the project," and by that point had sent "more than a dozen letters on the matter" to the inspector general as part of Pebble Limited Partnership CEO Tom Collier's "strategy of using both the courts and the agency's in-house watchdog" to advance the project. [Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 1/13/16; Northern Dynasty Minerals Ltd., 5/6/14; E&E News, 5/21/15]
William Cohen, Who Authored Inaccurate Pebble-Funded Report Criticizing EPA's Conduct, Also Urged Inspector General Investigation. In an inaccurate and non-transparent report that was commissioned by the Pebble Limited Partnership, former Defense Secretary William Cohen claimed that there is reason for "serious concerns as to whether EPA orchestrated the process to reach a predetermined outcome; had inappropriately close relationships with anti-mine advocates; and was candid about its decision-making process." Cohen stated that he had "not attempted to reach conclusions on these issues," and continued (emphasis added):
I believe the information unearthed to date merits the development of a complete record by those who have the subpoena power necessary to look at these questions more closely. Government oversight by the proper authorities must play an active role in ensuring that agencies do not engage in preordained decision-making. Thus, I urge the EPA's Inspector General and Congress to continue to explore these questions which might further illuminate EPA's motives and better determine whether EPA has met its core obligations of government service and accountability.
Cohen also pointed to the inspector general investigation in his statement during a November 5 Congressional hearing, declaring that "[t]he controversy has prompted an Inspector General's investigation, this and other Congressional hearings, and substantial litigation." [Media Matters, 11/5/15; The Cohen Group, 10/6/15; House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, 11/5/15]
House Science Committee Chairman Attacked IG Report On Pebble Mine, But Touted Previous EPA IG Report When He Agreed With The Findings
Rep. Lamar Smith Attacked EPA IG Report On Pebble Mine As "Misleading." In a January 13 press release, House Science Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX), who led a committee hearing on the EPA's handling of Pebble Mine in November, declared that "[t]he Inspector General's (IG) report on EPA's actions to block the Pebble Mine draws misleading conclusions without having all the facts." Smith's criticism of the inspector general report, which was also included in a press release by Northern Dynasty Minerals, was picked up by multiple media outlets including the Washington Examiner, which devoted an entire article to attacks on the report by Smith and another Republican congressman. [House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, 1/13/16; Yahoo.com, 1/13/16; NewsChannel 10, 1/13/16; Washington Examiner, 1/13/16]
But Smith Praised Prior EPA IG Report For "Highlight[ing] Agency Fraught With Problems." After the EPA inspector general released a September 2013 report identifying "risks to records management efforts" by secondary email accounts used by EPA officials, Smith praised the findings in a press release, stating that the report "points to an agency with many problems." Smith added: "The IG's report found that the EPA has significant work to do if it wants to ensure transparency and regain the public's trust. I agree with these findings and hope that senior EPA officials take them to heart." [EPA.gov, 9/26/13; House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, 9/30/13]