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Murkowski says she’ll use appropriations to block Alaskan mine

Spending bill language calls for a rigorous environmental assessment of the project's risks

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said "I simply think that this is the wrong mine in the wrong place."
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said "I simply think that this is the wrong mine in the wrong place." (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Sen. Lisa Murkowski issued her strongest objection to date against the Pebble Mine project, a proposed mining site of copper, gold and molybdenum near the ecologically sensitive Bristol Bay, pledging to use the federal appropriations process to protect the region.

Speaking virtually at a convention of the Alaska Federation of Natives on Thursday, Murkowski, R-Alaska, chairwoman of the Senate Interior-Environment Appropriations Subcommittee, said she would use spending legislation to protect Bristol Bay, home to the world’s biggest salmon run and one of its largest commercial fisheries. She is also chairwoman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

“I simply think that this is the wrong mine in the wrong place,” Murkowski said. “We need longer-term protections for the region that can also provide enduring value for Alaskans.”

Murkowski submitted language in the fiscal 2020 Interior-Environment spending bill that directed the Army Corps of Engineers to conduct a more rigorous environmental assessment of the project’s risks. “I plan to build on my appropriations language from last year to make sure that the Bristol bay region remains protected,” she said Thursday.

Pebble Mine has stalled since 2014, when the Environmental Protection Agency blocked the project, citing risks to fish in the region. The project has come under scrutiny and political pressure in recent weeks.

The environmental group the Environmental Investigation Agency released last month secretly recorded tapes of the executives pushing for approval. Company executives Tom Collier and Ron Thiessen, the CEO of Northern Dynasty Minerals Ltd., the Canada-based parent company behind the project, indicated on those tapes the project could last longer than they had told Congress.

“Once you have something like this in production, why would you want to stop?” Thiessen says.

Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., who has long opposed the mine, called on Sept. 29 for a Justice Department investigation of the project and the company’s representations to Congress.

Murkowski has largely remained skeptical but not fervently opposed to Pebble Mine as the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers, the other key federal agency evaluating the proposed mine, have studied the site during the Obama and Trump administrations.

Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, who is running for reelection against Al Gross, an independent, came out against the mine on Aug. 24, shortly after the corps determined that the project would not meet federal water permitting guidelines. Gross has pressed Sullivan to return campaign money received from Pebble Mine executives. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the election “likely Republican.”

The mine is still in the permitting process, and SalmonState, an environmental group in Alaska, urged Murkowski on Thursday to back an EPA veto.

“We need the senator to put our fears and distrust to rest by taking the shackles off the EPA and allowing EPA scientists to issue a 404c veto of the toxic Pebble Mine under the Clean Water Act,” Tim Bristol, the group’s executive director, said in a statement, citing a provision of 1972 legislation that laid out objectives for the nation’s water.

Congress has funded the government through Dec. 11, leaving about three weeks for lawmakers to pass fiscal 2021 appropriations legislation before the new Congress begins. Murkowski’s committee leadership would depend on Republicans retaining control of the Senate after the November elections.

House Democrats added an amendment to the $1.3 trillion six-bill spending package to block funding for approval of Pebble Mine. The amendment was sponsored by Reps. Jared Huffman, D-Calif., Peter A. DeFazio, D-Ore., Jackie Speier, D-Calif., Mike Levin, D-Calif., and Harley Rouda, D-Calif.

Prominent conservatives, Donald Trump Jr., Tucker Carlson and Nick Ayers, the former chief of staff to Vice President Mike Pence, came out against Pebble this summer.

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