EPA Holding Meetings on Bristol Bay Mine in Anchorage

Map retrieved from the EPA

Scientists are gathered at the Dena’ina Center in Anchorage this week for a three-day meeting on the Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment, which reviews possible mining impacts on Salmon in Bristol Bay. The 12 scientists nominated to the panel faced a crowd of stakeholders Monday in the Tikahtnu Ballroom.

There were so many people trying to listen online, that the EPA had to increase its broadband capacity to accommodate to the number of requests for connections. The first in 3-days of meetings, with an external peer review panel of 12 scientists began at 8:30 a.m. Tuesday. Region 10 EPA Administrator, Dennis McLaron’s opened the proceedings by explaining the purpose of the event.

“They will be focused on the science of the assessment and what recommendations can be made to improve that science,” McLaron said.

The EPA hired and independent contractor, Versar, to conduct the meetings and select panel members. The 12-person panel includes university professors, consultants and government agency officials. They’re job is to take a look at the Draft Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment, released by the EPA this spring and make suggestions. One-hundred-thirteen people signed up to speak during the public comment day, for three minutes each. The development of the proposed Pebble Mine depends, largely on the assessment. Wednesday the panel will deliberate 14 ‘charge questions’ before the public. Thursday, they’ll discuss the issue in a private. The first comments on the topic of ‘mine scenario and operational modes’ were industry heavy. Laura Tesch, Director of Environmental Planning and sustainability with the Pebble Limited Partnership, the company working to develop Pebble Mine in Alaska, was critical of the draft assessment.

“I urge you to review the technical comments in the series of white papers the PLP submitted prepared during the public comment period. This information provides specific details on the exceptional number of technical errors, inaccuracies and inconsistencies in the EPA report language,” Tesch said.

Representatives of the Pebble Partnership have been pushing for the EPA to include some of the 27,000 pages of the ‘environmental baseline document’ they paid scientists around $120 million to produce. EPA officials say the format of the data – a PDF – makes it impossible to manipulate and independently analyze. An Attorney with the partnership said the hypothetical mine scenarios used in the assessment were too big and would never be permitted. The draft assessment includes a minimum and a maximum size of around 1,300 acres and 9,400 acres. EPA officials say they developed those scenarios based on public documents from Northern Dynasty Minerals, one of the companies developing the mine. Kendra Zamzow works for the center for science and public participation. She commended that the EPA on their draft assessment and said the mine scenarios in the document were actually underestimated because once the infrastructure for one mine, like Pebble is built, the door will open to other mine development.

“Therefore it is appropriate to characterize development of the Pebble copper porphyry ore body as a minimum and conservative approach. Development of other ore bodies will only add to, not lesson or dilute characterization of the ecological risk. Indeed the risk is under estimated,” Zamzow said.

Melvin Andrew, an Alaska Native from Manokotak who says he works as a ‘community associate’ with the Pebble Partnership, said the EPA should slow down their assessment. His comment took the form of several questions.

“What shall I leave my children’s children with? Shall I leave them with a fishing industry, as is. Should I leave them with a closed opportunity. Should we open better opportunities that may give them a better living than I did. These are very important issues that need careful consideration, not rushed assessments,” Andrew said.

Pebble Partnership officials have said repeatedly that they want the EPA to wait until after they submit their mine plan, which will likely be submitted in 2013, before completing the assessment. EPA officials maintain they are not rushing. They began working on the Assessment in February 2011. To date, the EPA has received more than 220,000 comments on the assessment. A report based on this week’s meeting will be published this fall. The EPA will use it to revise the Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment before publishing the final assessment, sometime around the new year. The final Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment will be used to guide the EPA’s decision-making for large-scale mine permitting in the Bristol Bay region and could make it difficult, if not impossible to develop the proposed Pebble Mine.

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Daysha Eaton is a contributor with the Alaska Public Radio Network.

Daysha Eaton holds a B.A. from Evergreen State College, and a M.A. from the University of Southern California. Daysha got her start in radio at Seattle public radio stations, KPLU and KUOW. Before coming to KBBI, she was the News Director at KYUK in Bethel. She has also worked as the Southcentral Reporter for KSKA in Anchorage.

Daysha's work has appeared on NPR's "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered", PRI's "The World" and "National Native News". She's happy to take assignments, and to get news tips, which are best sent via email.

Daysha became a journalist because she believes in the power of storytelling. Stories connect us and they help us make sense of our world. They shed light on injustice and they comfort us in troubled times. She got into public broadcasting because it seems to fulfill the intention of the 4th Estate and to most effectively apply the freedom of the press granted to us through the Constitution. She feels that public radio has a special way of moving people emotionally through sound, taking them to remote places, introducing them to people they would not otherwise meet and compelling them to think about issues they might ordinarily overlook.

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