Twelve scientists began their evaluation of a federal study of a huge proposed mine and whether it can be developed in the Bristol Bay area without harming salmon. They were immediately confronted by the impassioned debate between supporters and opponents of a Pebble copper and gold mine.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's draft assessment of the project was released in May. It concluded that even if a large mine operated smoothly, without engineering failures, miles of salmon rivers and streams could be lost or blocked. And while the risk of catastrophic failure was small, that risk grows a hundred-fold if the mine were developed under standard engineering practices rather than state-of-the-art methods.
Now independent scientists, a group of university professors and private consultants picked by a private contractor, are judging the EPA's work. On Tuesday, the first of three days of meetings in Anchorage, the panel heard hours of testimony from more than 100 people at the Dena'ina Civic and Convention Center over whether the Pebble prospect can be mined without environmental damage. More showed up to listen.
The EPA study wasn't specific to Pebble. The Pebble Limited Partnership, the group behind the mine, hasn't yet submitted a development plan. But it's the biggest and most controversial claim in the Bristol Bay region, which produces about half of the wild sockeye salmon worldwide.
Pebble and its supporters told the scientists the EPA study was rushed and flawed. The hypothetical mine analyzed by the EPA would never be allowed by regulators under current mining rules, John Shively, the Pebble Partnership's chief executive, told the panel.
"The fantasy mine that EPA uses to measure the potential impacts on this very large watershed has no basis in reality in the 21st century," Shively said.
Others echoed that view. "This is a classic case of garbage in, garbage out," said Michael Satre, a mining geologist who serves as executive director of the Council of Alaska Producers, an industry group.
But Dennis McLerran, administrator of Seattle-based EPA Region 10, told reporters during a break that the EPA study relied on documents that one of Pebble's partners filed with the government. The mining scenario was based on "modern mining practices," he said.
More than 200,000 people submitted written comments on the assessment, and roughly 90 percent supported the EPA's findings, McLerran said.
Some told the panel that the EPA was on the right track, and if anything, underplayed the risks of mining by not looking at all the toxins that could be released or all the species that could be affected.
"The waters are so pure there is no room for error in collection or wastewater treatment," Kendra Zamzow, a geochemist and the Alaska representative for the nonprofit Center for Science in Public Participation.
Alaska Natives from the region testified too. Some worked for Pebble and said the benefits of mining jobs in an economically depressed region shouldn't be discounted. But others said salmon are the real treasure, and a culture built around subsistence would be devastated if mining harmed the fish.
"We sing, we dance and we have art around salmon," said Dillingham commercial fisherman Thomas Tilden. "Because that is who we are."
On Wednesday, the scientific panel will begin to discuss its recommendations for the EPA in public. On Thursday, panel members will be writing individual recommendations and that session is closed to the public, the EPA said.
The EPA expects to have its assessment finished by year's end. The agency has not decided what course to take, McLerran said. Some Native groups want it to shut down the Pebble project.
Reach Lisa Demer at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4390.