Mixed Reaction to EPA Assessment

There was mixed reaction to the EPA’s release of its Bristol Bay watershed study. For the tribes, fishermen, and environmental groups who’ve lobbied the EPA to involve itself in the Pebble Mine debate, Wednesday’s announcement came as an reaffirmation of long-held beliefs:

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Bob Waldrop: “The assessment is absolutely clear, and now is unimpeachable: mining in critical salmon habitat will severely impact salmon in Bristol Bay.”

Bob Waldrop is the executive director for the Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association which represents all of the driftnet fishermen in the Bay.

The groups who’ve aligned themselves against the Pebble Mine have not always been allies, and certainly have not always seen eye-to-eye with the federal government. But the Bristol Bay tribes who requested the EPA to issue a 404c veto of the mine back in 2010 say they’ve appreciated the agency’s partnership:

Alannah Hurley: “We are so happy with the job the EPA has done in Bristol Bay of making sure that tribal governments and their memberships have been involved.”

That’s Alannah Hurley of the United Tribes of Bristol Bay, which represents 12 watershed tribes. Aside from taking in more than a million public comment letters, Hurley says it was the agency’s time on the ground that has so far proved the Obama administration’s commitment to trust responsibilities with tribal governments:

Alannah Hurley: “They had public hearings in nearly every community in Bristol Bay, numerous tribal consultations to ensure that traditional ecological knowledge and the impacts to our Alaska Native people in the Bristol Bay region were included in the assessment.”

To the disappointment of many, the EPA stopped short of issuing any regulatory decisions with the release of the watershed assessment Wednesday. Hurley says the tribes are in constant contact with the Obama administration, making clear that the original request was to put a preemptive veto on the Pebble Mine:

Alannah Hurley: “This is President Obama’s opportunity to leave quite a legacy. The people of Bristol Bay, the tribes of Bristol Bay, are tired of this cloud of Pebble hanging over us, suffocating our region. The time to act is now.”

Sport and commercial fishermen are part of the chorus asking that the EPA not just study the watershed, but use its authority to protect it from mining. The well-managed Bristol Bay salmon fishery produces more than half of the world’s wild caught sockeye and is worth an estimated half a billion dollars annually.

Katherine Carscallen skippers a drift boat out of Dillingham:

Katherine Carscallen: “It’s been a really long time that we’ve had this threat of large scale mining right at the top of our watershed, and it’s hard to see the future of our economy which entirely depends on a sustainable and pristine environment. I think we’ve all been pretty anxious to see this report come out, and see some actual action.”

The $2.4 million assessment is now over 1300 pages in length, and it’s safe to say that most commenting Wednesday hadn’t had time to read far past the 40 page executive summary.

Still, environmental groups from the Natural Resources Defense Council to the World Wildlife Fund are praising the EPA’s work as scientifically sound. Tim Bristol is the Alaska program manager for Trout Unlimited, which has helped lead the fight against Pebble:

Tim Bristol: “I think they’ve done a tremendous job. Two rounds of analysis, two rounds of peer review, and incorporating all the information they possibly could from every source.”

Others disagree, including Pebble Limited Partnership CEO John Shively. After a very cursory review of the assessment Wednesday, Shively said he wasn’t convinced anything had improved from the draft version:

John Shively: “And we have the same kind of criticisms. We don’t think it’s science-based. For instance, we have a lot of science, and they used none of it.”

Shively was referencing the $150 million dollars’ worth of environmental studies done by Pebble over nearly a decade, which has produced some 30,000 pages of data.

John Shively: “We have brought in some of the top experts in the world to help us, some of the top fishing experts, some of the top mining and engineering experts. All of that’s going into our work, and we’re still not done with it, after basically over a decade. EPA certainly didn’t take anywhere near that time, and didn’t spent nowhere near that money. They basically rushed through this, and I think they had a predetermined outcome.”

Shively says the hypothetical mining scenarios used by the EPA are not based on the 21st century technology being implemented in Pebble’s design. He also says the EPA process itself has been flawed, rushed, and often done in secret.

At the heart of the EPA’s watershed assessment is the conclusion that a mine like Pebble would present significant risks to Bristol Bay salmon and the people who depend on the resource.

John Shively:  “The EPA’s analysis of how much damage we would do I believe is way overstated, and I think they did that on purpose. But I will tell you this:  if they’re correct, this mine will never be permitted.  I mean we have to show that we can protect that fishery. If our mine plan comes along, and the permitting agencies think we cannot protect the fisheries, cannot co-exist with the fisheries, we will not get the many permits that we need.”

Others weighed in Wednesday as well. Senator Mark Begich ambiguously stated that he would rely on science before taking a position, while both Senator Lisa Murkowski and Governor Sean Parnell were critical of the EPA’s assessment, suggesting it was setting up the agency to issue a premature veto of the Pebble Mine.

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