Point-counterpoint: Assessment is right: Mine creates big risk

BY JASON METROKINJanuary 18, 2014 

The release of the Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment last week by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) completes a lengthy process. Over the past three years, the agency gathered and analyzed volumes of information regarding potential impacts of large-scale mining -- such as the proposed Pebble mine -- to the fisheries and wildlife of Bristol Bay, as well as to the Alaska Native cultures and communities that call Bristol Bay home.

EPA's assessment recognizes that Bristol Bay nurtures an unparalleled wild salmon resource, is home to some of the world's last intact, sustainable salmon-based cultures, and supports a commercial fishery that provides 14,000 jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars in direct, in-state economic expenditures as well as a vibrant sport fishery, well known around the world. It also concludes that these resources, cultures and economic engine would be put at significant risk by the development of a large-scale mine such as Pebble.

According to the assessment, any threat to the salmon resource would cause profound adverse impacts to the nutritional, social and spiritual health of our shareholders and would threaten the long-term sustainability of their communities. These observations, now backed by scientific data, help explain why a majority of Alaskans and a clear majority of residents, including our shareholders, supported EPA's work on the assessment -- and oppose Pebble.

Bristol Bay Native Corporation (BBNC) supports responsible resource development, which does not cause unacceptable risks to local people, cultures and economies. The proposed Pebble mine does not meet these standards. That is why, in August 2010, BBNC petitioned EPA to use its Clean Water Act authority to protect the region's people and resources from risks posed by the proposed Pebble mine. (BBNC did not act first; six of the region's tribes had filed their own petitions three months earlier.)

EPA responded with prudence and caution, choosing to conduct a scientific assessment of the Nushagak and Kvichak watersheds to determine if the risks -- as the tribes and BBNC saw them -- truly existed. That process culminated last week.

The watershed assessment went through a robust, peer-reviewed process. EPA released two drafts -- in May 2012 and April 2013 -- and held two public comment periods, generating more than 1.1 million comments. Twelve subject-matter experts peer-reviewed both drafts, each time offering detailed critiques. All input was reviewed, evaluated and incorporated as appropriate into the final assessment.

Notably, much data at the backbone of the EPA's analysis come directly from Northern Dynasty Minerals, which owns 100 percent of the Pebble claims, and the Pebble Limited Partnership, the company overseeing the work. Mining scenarios in the final assessment were based on state of Alaska water rights applications and a 2011 technical report assessing the economic value of the deposit for shareholders and filed with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission -- both from Northern Dynasty.

In August 2013, newly appointed EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy visited Bristol Bay and heard residents' concerns about development of the proposed Pebble mine -- particularly their conviction that the region's survival depends on maintaining healthy populations of subsistence resources, which in turn requires clean water. This input mirrored that of more than 98 percent of the local written comments submitted to EPA during earlier draft assessment public comment periods. McCarthy, for her part, promised the agency would protect Bristol Bay's waters from discharges having unacceptable adverse impacts on the region's fisheries. These meetings were informative and important, and we thank the administrator for her time.

The finalization of the watershed assessment and McCarthy's visit to Bristol Bay have demonstrated EPA's commitment to sound science and listening to local input. With the watershed assessment finished and the science in, EPA should now take action to protect the Bristol Bay region from the unacceptable risks from large-scale metallic sulfide mines such as Pebble.

In advocating for this action, BBNC lives up to its corporate mission: "Enriching Our Native Way of Life."

Jason Metrokin is president and CEO of Bristol Bay Native Corporation.

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