"I don’t know what the hell party I belong to": Why this hardcore Republican learned to love the EPA

When a massive mining project threatened environmental destruction, one ardent, lifelong GOPer changed his tune

Published August 15, 2014 11:43AM (EDT)

Rick Halford     (YouTube/Save Bristol Bay)
Rick Halford (YouTube/Save Bristol Bay)

Rick Halford is Republican to the core. The retired politician served the party in the Alaska state Legislature for 24 years, including stints as Senate president, as well as both Senate and House majority leader. Always, he has stood for free enterprise, individual rights and small business; typically, he's been pro-development. He started "as a very seriously redneck Republican," and saw little in his time in office to challenge his views.

But for Halford, there turned out to be one thing worse than a meddling federal government: Pebble Mine, a proposed open-pit copper mine that has the potential to destroy everything that makes his home like no place else on Earth. And in order to stop it, he had turn to the federally funded environmental agency that conservative Republicans like him love to hate.

* * *

Even by Alaskan standards, Bristol Bay, site of the proposed Pebble Mine, is unique, though not in a way that would make it particularly appealing to outsiders. In emails we exchanged after he ventured there this past July, reporter Rowan Jacobsen described the local scene:

A thing to understand about Bristol Bay is that it is not quaint. It's not charming. It's a handful of tiny fishing towns populated almost entirely by fishermen. Many of the skippers from “The Deadliest Catch” work the Bristol Bay salmon fishery in the summer, and they give you a pretty good sense of what the populace is like: rough, hard, Republican. Like most Alaskans, they tend to despise the federal government and still rue the day that Alaska became a state.

“So I was stunned,” Jacobsen wrote, “to hear so many of them calling on the EPA to protect them.”

The locals understand that what makes Bristol Bay special is below the surface. Yes, that means the 10.78 billion tons of minable ore that the Pebble Partnership wants to come in and exploit. But there are also the salmon – the resource that makes the region truly extraordinary. Here’s Jacobsen, again:

If you see a filet of wild Alaska salmon in your supermarket, it's almost definitely sockeye, and it likely came from Bristol Bay. Bristol Bay accounts for nearly half the sockeye on earth. And it keeps getting better: this year, scientists expected a run of 20 million fish to return to Bristol Bay. They got 40 million. I think of it as the greatest supply of sustainable omega-3s on the planet.

How did it get this way? It's because sockeye are different. They are the only species of salmon that spawn in lakes instead of streams. And they are very sensitive to water quality. So what they need is a diverse system of super-clean lakes that feed into a body of water with a robust food supply, so they can fatten up in the years they're at sea before returning. Bristol Bay feeds into the Bering Sea, which is one of the richest and most productive bodies of water in the world. And the lake system in the headwaters above Bristol Bay is also unparalleled. I saw it all from the air. Lots of Alaska rivers climb quickly into the mountains and turn into streams, but the Bristol Bay watershed is not especially mountainous. Instead, you get these classic, massive systems of relatively flat tundra and lakes, some small, some among the largest in the country: sockeye paradise. Nowhere else in Alaska is like that. It's a beautiful, strange, mesmerizing landscape.

Upstream swimmers in a downstream world, salmon are famous for never forgetting where they came from. After years spent fattening up at sea, they’ll return thousands of miles to where they first spawned. The fishermen who’ve staked their claims in Bristol Bay don’t need to seek out the salmon or steer them home. The salmon have it figured out; all that’s left for them to do is leave enough in the waters to ensure they keep coming back. It adds up to a $1.5 billion fishery that supports more than 14,000 jobs.

But what if the salmon don't come back? Back in 2010, Francis Lam asked that very question in Salon. It’s the thought that’s been on everyone’s mind since the Pebble Partnership announced its intentions to develop a mine larger than the area of Manhattan atop this precious habitat. Such an extreme level of development, experts say, would be certain to pollute those super-clean lakes in which the salmon thrive. And the stakes, were something to go wrong, are massive -- a reminder that became all the more poignant last week when a “massive failure” at the Mount Polley copper and gold mine in central British Columbia dumped an estimated 1.3 billion gallons of contaminants into that region’s salmon streams.

The B.C. First Nation announced Thursday that it will be evicting the mining company from its territory because, as Neskonlith Chief Judy Wilson explained, "the industry has proven at Mount Polley that they can’t regulate all of that.” The earthen dams that would be used at Pebble Mine are being designed by the same company behind those that failed at Mount Polley; Pebble Mine itself is about 10 times the size. Were a similar "failure" to occur in Bristol Bay, the outcome would be an unequivocal disaster.

Alaska’s Republican-led government, located about a thousand miles away in Juneau, disagrees. The state insists that the opportunities presented by Pebble Mine justify the risk to the fishing industry that already thrives in Bristol Bay. The state has openly thrown its weight behind the Pebble Partnership – even going so far as to try to join the industry in a lawsuit against the EPA’s interference. From the perspective of those living in Bristol Bay, the state is fighting hard against their interests, in ways that can feel extremely personal.

"The State of Alaska has a very distinct way of controlling information and opinions, and putting pressure on people,” Izzetta Chambers, who runs Naknek Family Fisheries, a small-scale seafood processor in the area, observed. At the time the idea of the mine was first floated, she was working in business development for the region. She was open-minded about the idea, but it quickly became clear to her that a large-scale mining operation would directly conflict with the interests of her clients, who were mostly tourist operators or small fish processors. Yet her boss told her in explicit terms that she had to come out in favor of the mine. When it became clear that she would do just the opposite, she recalls it quickly became a hostile work environment.

“There seems to be this vibe in the (right-leaning) press that this fight is some sort of mismatch, with the big, bad federal government and its national environmental nonprofit allies coming down on the little, independent mining consortium and the State of Alaska,” Jacobsen observed. “But it’s actually just the opposite.” Big Mining had come in with the full support of the state, leaving no room for opposition. Chambers recalls going to borough planning sessions and hearing planners say, “This is a done deal. These types of things are practically impossible to stop.” They tried to squash official opposition at the municipal level, she said. “They made it seem like you just have to take this.”

* * *

What if the salmon don’t come? Halford started to get curious. And the more he learned about the salmon, and the risks involved with Pebble Mine, the more urgent the question became. Even the best scientists don’t know everything that makes Bristol Bay the salmon paradise it is, he came to realize, and no attempt to reintroduce salmon to a place from which they’ve disappeared has ever been as successful as what nature creates. For Halford, it all built up to something of a revelation: “The survival of the system and how it was built and what it is … it’s magic. And if there’s any rule – there should be a rule – is if you can’t ever fix it, then be sure you don’t break it.”

If the State of Alaska wouldn’t abide by that rule, there was a stronger rule to pull in: the Clean Water Act. Section 404(c) of that piece of federal legislation specifically authorizes the EPA to step in and prohibit activity that would have “unacceptable adverse impact on one or more of various resources,” including fisheries and wildlife. It was a clause that seemed written for a place like Bristol Bay.

Halford wasn’t the only one to come to that uncomfortable conclusion. “These same people that are scared to death of the federal government, don’t like the state government and don’t even trust their local government," he found, "are so scared to death of Pebble Mine that they will go to the EPA, of all the awful agencies, and say, ‘Please come help us.’”

Greg Harris, a fisherman who has lived in Bristol Bay for 33 years and who describes himself as being “as conservative as they come,” struggled with the contradiction. “Last year the EPA came out here,” he recalled, “and I told them point blank: ‘I think the EPA is an overstretched, over-budgeted blown bureaucracy.’”

He needed to make that clear in order to justify what he said next: “I think you guys are like a big octopus – you have your tentacles into everything. But if one of your tentacles can help with this, I’m all for it.’”

And so the EPA came to Bristol Bay, invited not by the hated "outside environmentalists" but by natives, fishermen, small businesses and other locals who consider all of those things that make them special under attack by mining interests and their own state government. Even Halford had to admit, he was impressed by the agency’s "very serious, credible process." Officials went village to village, interpreters in tow, collecting local knowledge. They spent a ton of time evaluating the situation, and did so "in a very human way.”

At the beginning of January, the agency released its three-year watershed report, which came down to one basic conclusion: Bristol Bay, just as everyone who lives there already knows, is special. It is, in the agency’s official summation, “an area of unparalleled ecological value, boasting salmon diversity and productivity unrivaled anywhere in North America. As a result, the region is a globally significant resource with outstanding value.” The impact of a large-scale mine, it estimated, “would likely cause irreversible loss of significant reaches of streams that support salmon and other important species of … fish, as well as extensive areas of wetlands, ponds and lakes” at the site. That was enough, it determined in late February, to justify further action to block Pebble Mine under the Clean Water Act. Of Alaskans who wrote in during the two public comment periods for the assessment, according to Bristol Bay United, 78 percent were in favor of the EPA; in Bristol Bay itself, EPA support reached 98 percent.

* * *

On July 18, 2014, the EPA announced its proposal for tough restrictions on mining in the Bristol Bay watershed under 404(c). If approved, after a 60-day comment period, it will effectively bar development of the type required for Pebble Mine to become a reality, and will protect the five miles of salmon stream and 1,100 acres of wetlands that, according to its assessment, would otherwise be lost under even the smallest scenario.

The restrictions only apply to this particular mine in this particular location, a nuance that has been lost on state representatives. Decrying the decision, Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski declared that “the EPA is setting a precedent that strips Alaska and all Alaskans of the ability to make decisions on how to develop a healthy economy on their lands.”

Meanwhile, the national reaction to the intervention has been surprisingly muted, although Sen. David Vitter, R-La., ranking member of the Environment and Public Works Committee, was quick to voice his dissent. "When it comes to the Pebble Mine, EPA has shown that they are willing to disregard due process and lawfully established permitting procedures to ensure the failure of any project like this," he railed. "EPA's desperate attempt to kill a potential mine should signal a major red flag to businesses."

Neither Murkowski nor Vitter seems aware of the irony of their statements. But the bigger irony -- that this was a battle started by locals but ultimately cinched by Big Government -- isn't lost on Halford. He went so far as to admit: “I don’t know what the hell party I belong to."

Make no mistake: Halford will die a registered Republican, and he still believes in the things he thinks Republicans are supposed to stand for, development included. “I have become more and more conservation-oriented as I’ve realized the pressure on renewable natural resources,” he allowed. “But I would not call myself an environmentalist, and in the past I probably would have strongly resented being called an environmentalist.”

I apologized for asking. But the Republican government? It might end up having a lot more to be sorry for. In siding with Big Mining, it created a battle that could only be won by Big Government. And in fighting for Pebble Mine, Jacobsen mused, it may have ended up losing some of its biggest supporters. "I'm not saying they're going to flip their vote tomorrow," he said. "But they may well remember that when Big Mining started throwing its weight around, it took the EPA, of all entities, to come in and protect their way of life."

Rowan Jacobsen contributed reporting to this piece.

By Lindsay Abrams

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Alaska Environment Epa Mining Pebble Mine Rick Halford