The risk of a catastrophic failure from a big gold and copper mine near the spawning grounds for Bristol Bay's famed salmon fisheries grows 100-fold if the project is built and run under standard engineering practices rather than as a state-of-the-art operation, says a new analysis by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
The federal agency on Friday released its much-anticipated draft scientific study of potential impacts of large-scale mining on the Bristol Bay watershed.
The chance of collapse from an earthen or rock-filled dam built to retain mine tailings is relatively small either way, whether under standard engineering or state-of-the-art practices, Dennis McLerran, administrator of Seattle-based EPA region 10, told reporters. But if it happened, a collapse could degrade salmon-producing rivers and streams for decades, the assessment said.
Even if a large mine operated smoothly, with no engineering failures and no human-caused disasters, the EPA said in its analysis that miles of salmon rivers and streams could be lost or blocked, as could thousands of acres of wetlands that are vital to juvenile salmon.
"The report does conclude that there is a potential for certain activities associated with large-scale mining to have adverse impacts on the productivity and the sustainability of the salmon fishery in the watershed," McLerran said.
The Pebble Partnership, the group behind the mine project, said the EPA's review was rushed, speculative and "a federal intrusion." It "could have a chilling effect on future resource development investments in Alaska," Pebble said in a written response.
AN ENORMOUS PROSPECT
Pebble has called the deposit one of the largest of its kind in the world, with the potential of producing, over decades, 80.6 billion pounds of copper, 107.4 million ounces of gold and 5.6 billion pounds of molybdenum.
It has been the subject of a heated public-relations battle for years. Supporters say it would bring much-needed jobs to economically depressed rural Alaska, but opponents fear it could fundamentally change the landscape and disrupt, if not destroy, a way of life.
McLerran told reporters the study is not about a single project such as Pebble but instead is a look at the potential impacts of mining in a region that he says accounts for about half of wild sockeye salmon worldwide. He said there are at least seven other claims in advance stages of exploration and development in the region.
EPA took on the review after being petitioned by tribal groups, including Bristol Bay Native Corp., to protect the area's valuable salmon runs. The review examined how any big mine would affect salmon that spawn and spend their early life in the watershed. It is based on a hypothetical mine scenario that the agency says draws in part on plans and data put forth by the Pebble Partnership.
John Shively, Pebble Partnership's chief executive, said in an interview that the developers have been studying the ecosystem in a small area around the proposed mine for eight years. The EPA, in one year, conducted an assessment of an area spanning 20,000 square miles.
"We think they're rushing it and we think their work has to be inadequate," he said.
McLerran, of EPA, said that the assessment is still a draft and said the EPA will be soliciting public comment and peer review by independent scientists.
As to lost habitat within the mine's footprint, Pebble developers would reroute streams or create new wetlands that could be even more productive, Shively said.
"If there's salmon habitat that we have to cover up or use, we have to mitigate by making additional salmon habitat," he said. "And that's doable. That's science."
Shively pointed to the example of the Red Dog zinc mine. When he worked to develop the mine in the early 1980s as an executive with NANA Regional Corp., he said Red Dog Creek had no fish in it because of naturally occurring acid in the mineral-rich area.
The developer rerouted the stream and now it's fish habitat, Shively said.
The EPA also looked at the possibility of a mine failure, in particular the collapse of a dam holding mine tailings. Researchers reviewed documented collapses and concluded that modern techniques and operational systems should lessen the chance of a collapse.
Still, for every 10,000 mines built and run under standard practices, there likely would be one collapse a year. With state-of-the-art construction and systems, the risk lessens to one in a million, the EPA estimated.
Shively said he anticipates that regulators will require the Pebble mine to be built to the highest standards, and Pebble executives want to do that anyway.
"We want to do what's right to protect the fish. We understand how sensitive it is," Shively said.
The Bristol Bay Native Corp. came out against the Pebble project in late 2009. Most of its shareholders oppose it because they fear it will harm the salmon, said Jason Metrokin, the Native corporation's chief executive officer.
"We very much applaud the EPA," he said. "This watershed assessment is the first step in ensuring that there is a balanced scientific review."
The review indicates that a big mine, like the proposed Pebble project, "will have adverse impacts on the salmon, and the ecosystem and ultimately the lifestyle of the people living in the region," Metrokin said.
The wild salmon fishery and related areas generate some 14,000 full and part-time jobs and are valued at $480 million, the EPA said. The sockeye salmon run averages around 37.5 million fish every summer.
Lindsey Bloom, a commercial fisher and organizer with Trout Unlimited, said the assessment gives her some peace of mind.
"After all the years I've fished in Bristol Bay and have been watching this issue, it's good to see someone give it the time and depth of knowledge that it looks like EPA has," Bloom said.
Some Native groups, include Bristol Bay Native Corp., and environmentalists had wanted the EPA to invoke its authority and block the ability of Pebble to dispose of mineral waste downstream. The EPA didn't go that far, doing the study instead. A decision on whether to use that authority hasn't been made, McLerran said.
The Parnell administration fought the EPA study, questioning whether it was legal at this early stage, and will examine EPA's data, methods and assumptions, said Ruth Hamilton Heese, senior assistant attorney general.
"Although we remain greatly concerned that there is no legal authority for this assessment, we will thoroughly evaluate the assessment and seek to protect and promote the best interests of the State, its resources, and its citizens," she said in an email.
Alaska's two U.S. senators both said that the EPA should not block the Pebble project before developers even submit a plan.
"I will not trade fish for gold, but I oppose a pre-emptive veto prior to proper evaluation of an application and actual project description," Sen. Lisa Murkowski said Friday in a written statement.
Pebble has budgeted $107 million for work this summer and into next year. It's continuing studies of groundwater hydrology, water quality and fish resources and is working on its engineering analysis. It's also building up a local workforce.
Earlier this year, Pebble released 27,000 pages from its environmental studies. While it provided information to the EPA for the federal analysis, including raw data, Pebble didn't provide the information in a digital form. The Pebble data ended up not being very useful because of that, McLerran said.
Sometime in the next year or so, Pebble intends to submit its mine development plan to regulators, which initiates the permitting process.
A public hearing on the EPA assessment is set for 7 p.m. June 4 in Anchorage at the University of Alaska Anchorage Wendy Williamson Auditorium. Other meetings are set for Dillingham and surrounding villages.
Daily News reporter Lisa Demer and Becky Bohrer of The Associated Press contributed to this story. Reach Lisa Demer at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4390.