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Vol. 16, No. 9 Week of February 27, 2011
Providing coverage of Alaska and Northwest Canada's mineral industry

Mining News: EPA decides not to prohibit Pebble, yet

Federal agency chooses to conduct study on the effects of large-scale development on Bristol Bay; lawmakers encouraged, concerned

Shane Lasley

Mining News

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has decided not to preemptively strike down the possibility of building a mine at the Pebble copper-gold-molybdenum project, at least for now. Instead, the federal agency has decided to take a year to study the potential effects of large-scale development on Southwest Alaska’s Bristol Bay watershed where Pebble is located.

EPA said its decision to conduct the study is in response to Bristol Bay Native Corp. and others who petitioned the agency to exercise its authority under Section 404(c) of the Clean Water Act to prohibit the discharge of dredged or fill material from the proposed Pebble copper-gold-molybdenum mine.

Under 404(c) EPA has the power to preemptively prohibit, restrict, or deny a permit, if it believes there is an unacceptable adverse impact to fisheries or other water uses.

The federal agency cited Bristol Bay’s importance as a source of wild Pacific salmon for commercial, recreational and subsistence users.

EPA spokeswoman Marianne Holsman told Mining News that three questions will guide the study.

Is the Bristol Bay salmon fishery the one of a kind, world-class fishery that it is depicted to be?

What are the existing and potential risks to Bristol Bay’s salmon fishery associated with large-scale development activities such as hardrock mining?

Are there technologies or practices that will mitigate these risks?

Lawmakers wary

Alaska’s U.S. senators view the Bristol Bay study as a sensible preliminary step in determining how best to proceed with large-scale development in a region prized for its world class salmon fishery, but they have expressed concern that the study is a veneer of science painted over a predetermined decision by the agency.

“The EPA’s decision to withhold judgment on the potential environmental impact of projects like the Pebble Mine until all the scientific information has been collected and analyzed is a prudent decision,” Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said in response to the study.

Alaska’s senior senator later added, “While such preemptive action by the EPA remains a concern, I do not have an automatic objection to the agency looking at the potential impacts of development on the watershed. At the same time, I will make sure that the EPA’s analysis is based on science and that the process is transparent and unbiased. I will be watching closely to make sure the assessment is not simply a ‘check-the-box’ exercise that provides cover for (the) EPA to veto future permit applications.”

Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, took a similar tone to that of his Republican counterpart in his response to the EPA’s decision to conduct the study.

“I’ve long said that decisions about large-scale development such as the Pebble Mine must be based on sound science and not people’s fears,” Begich said. “I still want to see more details about this process, and how it will proceed.  I hope for a fully transparent process that invites all sides to the table and involves all the affected stakeholders including fishing groups, tribes, Alaska Native corporations and local communities. I also want to ensure this is a thorough and robust vetting of the issues involved and not just a bureaucratic exercise.”

Murkowski said she has her staff reviewing EPA’s proposal for the Bristol Bay study and “will make any and all recommendations for changes to ensure the process is fair to all stakeholders.”

“I am committed to letting the science decide whether mining is right for the Bristol Bay region, but any attempt to pre-judge a project before the environmental work is finished would be a troubling signal, as well as a clear violation of the environmental review process,” she added.

The EPA maintains that the Bristol Bay study does not represent any regulatory decision, but will be used to steer the agency’s future policies or recommendations regarding large-scale development in the region.

When asked what policies or recommendations might result from the study, Holsman said, “The information gathered will inform any future guidelines or actions about how to protect the waters and promote sustainable development. Until the assessment is complete, we aren’t speculating about or pre-judging what those guidelines or actions might be.”

Gathering data

While petitioning the EPA to invoke its 404(c) authority, the Bristol Bay Native Corp. endeavored to narrow the scope of the requested prohibition to specific lands owned by the State of Alaska at the headwaters of the Kvichak and Nushagak River drainages, the site of the Pebble deposit.

“With Section 404(c), we recognized the opportunity to be proactive and specific in our opposition to Pebble mine, and this is one part of a broader implementation of our corporation’s commitment to protecting the sustainable natural resources in Bristol Bay and further sustainable economic development,” Bristol Bay Native Corp. President and CEO Jason Metrokin said when the group filed the petition.

The nearly 13 million acres of wildlife refuge or federal park lands that cover most of the Bristol Bay watershed will not be included in the EPA study; instead the agency will focus on areas where development is not already restricted – primarily the Nushagak and Kvichak watersheds.

Though EPA’s proposed focus area roughly reflects that requested by the Native corporation, the environmental agency said the study will not only focus on hardrock mining projects like Pebble, but also will consider the effects of any future large-scale development on the Bristol Bay watershed.

The environmental agency said it will accept and consider public input during the watershed study and will continue to work closely with tribal governments, state and federal agencies as well as accept industry input as it conducts the study. 

“Gathering data and getting public input now, before development occurs, just makes sense. Doing this we can be assured that our future decisions are grounded in the best science and information and (are) in touch with the needs of these communities.  We look forward to working with Alaskans to protect and preserve this valuable resource,” said EPA Region 10 Administrator Dennis McLerran.

Holsman told Mining News that the agency’s preliminary plans include scheduling an initial round of public meetings in about six months, with one meeting planned for Anchorage and another to be held somewhere in the Bristol Bay region.

She said the EPA would then conduct peer review of the assessment before holding another round of meetings in Alaska. All told, the agency anticipates the study will take about a year to complete.

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