Scientists hit back against Pebble's demands as EPA fights lawsuit

Pebble Limited Partnerships has re ignited the debate around Federal overreach in the mining industry with its latest efforts to overturn a controversial project veto from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Two professors from the University of Alaska have hit back against subpoenas from Pebble, which requested insight into their research records as evidence for the company’s ongoing lawsuit against the EPA. In new court filings, the professors said that the latest ‘burdensome’ and ‘intrusive’ information demands threatened their first amendment rights and were a drain on University money and resources.

The mining company is expanding its hunt for evidence to support its claims that the EPA illegally manipulated scientific results in order to prevent a large scale Gold, Copper and Molybdenum mine in Alaska’s Bristol Bay watershed.

This week, the two University professors who previously worked on the EPA’s research study of Bristol Bay, filed their opposition to Pebble’s subpoenas in court. They declared that Pebble’s second round of demands "constitutes a time burden of proportions likely to be a discouraging factor for them, as well as other researchers, who contemplate engaging in future scientific research in areas which … are likely to become controversial because of the size of the commercial interests at stake." The university stated that if the requirement was upheld, Pebble should pay the cost of sifting through the scientific documents, which had so far surpassed $45,000. The EPA added in another filing that it had already submitted over 2 million pages of information to Pebble’s investigation and that the agency has clear legal authority to issue a preemptive determination to protect a globally important resource like Bristol Bay.

Pebble Limited Partnerships, whose parent company is Northern Dynasty Minerals (TSX:NDM) (NYSE:MKT), first sued the Environmental Protection Agency back in 2014 after its proposed mining project was slapped with a rarely used 404c veto initiative under the Clean Water Act. The EPA’s move blocked the mine from being built before Pebble had even applied for a federal permit; a controversial strategy that has generated global attention.

The EPA defended its decision, citing the need ". . . to protect one of the world’s most valuable salmon fisheries, in Bristol Bay, Alaska, from the risks posed by large-scale mining at the Pebble deposit." The World Wildlife Fund reported back in 2012 that the commercial fisheries in Bristol Bay support at least $4.1 billion of economic activity annually. The effects of Pebble’s proposed super-mine, the EPA argued, would have significant and irreversible negative impacts on the Bristol Bay watershed.

Pebble hit back that the EPA had pursued a biased and predetermined course of action, which didn’t comply with the usual requirements of the Federal Advisory Committee Act ("FACA"). Other proponents of the mine also hurled accusations, claiming the agency had used “de facto advisory committees that worked behind the scenes, and out of the public eye,” to generate “biased, junk science.”

Developers of Pebble’s proposed mine have estimated that the project could generate around $300 billion and thousands of jobs for the Bristol Bay and Anchorage regions in its lifetime. Annual taxes and royalty revenue could also rake in $165 million to $213 million annually for the state of Alaska.

The agency had found itself thrown under the spotlight earlier this year when an official report from the the inspector general (IG) confirmed that a former EPA employee named Phil North had been using his private email account while still at the agency to help Alaskan tribes opposing the project lobby the government to derail the project. North confirmed the claims in a court deposition, declaring that: “When someone comes to me and they want help petitioning the government, it’s my duty to give them feedback and help them on that.” An independent watchdog concluded that the EPA had not showed any signs of bias in its review of permits for the mine. So far 17 EPA employees have testified under oath about their work on the scientific data collected, but Pebble still alleges there are large gaps in the information that has been provided by the EPA.

Former Defence Secretary William S. Cohen, who was hired by Pebble Partnership, released a study back in 2015 detailing his worries that the EPA's actions on the case could make future mine development potentially prohibitive. The EPA denied these claims.

Northern Dynasty President and CEO Ron Thiessen said in a statement that: “With litigation against EPA pending, a preliminary injunction in place, and several US Congressional committees pursuing investigations into EPA misconduct, [the company] believes the standoff with EPA will be resolved this year.”