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EPA's science lends sense to Pebble debate

Chip Treinen

Last week, the Environmental Protection Agency announced that it "will conduct a scientific assessment of the Bristol Bay watershed to better understand how future large-scale development projects may affect water quality and Bristol Bay's salmon fishery." While this decision made headlines around the country, as a Bristol Bay commercial fishing business owner and operator, the news really caught my attention.

In the words of the EPA's Regional Administrator, Dennis McLarren, "Gathering data and getting public input now, before development occurs, just makes sense." I can rally in favor of something that makes sense, especially when so much effort has gone into public relations campaigns that are tailored for emotional impact. The "scientific assessment" proposed by the EPA can be a reset of the debate so that "... our future decisions are grounded in the best science and information."

Alaskans deserve a common sense approach when dealing with policy choices that could compromise subsistence, sport and commercial activities as well as families, communities and businesses that rely on the abundance and sustainability of Bristol Bay salmon resources.

Opposition from Bristol Bay fishery stakeholders to the Pebble Mine, as the "large-scale development" in question, should come as no surprise. If developed, miscalculations, accidents or oversights at the mine offer only potentially devastating consequences for the region's aquatic resources. The collateral effects of mining infrastructure, road construction and an influx of people can also have substantial negative consequences for fish habitat.

In the big, complex and fragile ecosystem that is the Bristol Bay watershed, damage to a particular stream or adjacent wetland is impossible to mitigate in any meaningful way regardless of corporate promises to do so. The Exxon Valdez Oil Spill litigation model showed -- with excruciating clarity -- that our legal system works a lot better for the corporate defendant than it does for the fisherman plaintiff. Overall, my fishing business and livelihood looks pretty vulnerable in the face of this particular large-scale development.

Although the Pebble Partnership is still a year or more away from filing for required mining permits that would begin formal analysis of the project by both state and federal authorities, there are already plenty of relevant facts and independent information to assess the basic concept.

No additional data will change the fact that the desired copper, gold and molybdenum ore is in a porphyry deposit. No additional studies are required to show that porphyry deposits -- Pebble included -- are low-grade ores containing sulfides, the source of acid mine runoff that requires eternal vigilance to control.

No additional engineering can significantly reduce the amount of tailings and overburden that will need to be moved to access the ore in quantities necessary for an economically viable project.

No additional study is needed to know that clean water flow and lots of it is the key component of the region's salmon abundance.

Even though the Pebble Partnership hasn't applied for specific mining permits, they have: applied for water rights on Talarik Creek and the South and North forks of the Koktuli River; revealed information on the type, concentration and extent of ore deposits; and publicly floated mine and waste containment plans that defy common sense for a remote, wet, richly productive, and fragile ecosystem located in a seismically active zone.

EPA's decision to plan for a scientific assessment of the Bristol Bay watershed indicates the agency's leadership recognizes the importance of the Bristol Bay salmon resource to the region and the state. However, it remains unclear what form the study will take, what the product of the investigation might be, and if or how it will be used.

From my perspective as a commercial fishing business owner and operator who relies on a fishery resource that is highly vulnerable to large-scale industrial activities, I hope that it will make "sense" to use this proposed assessment as a lead up to a more formal process of evaluation that will give proper deference to Bristol Bay's irreplaceable and perpetually renewable fishery resources.

Charles W. "Chip" Treinen has fished in a variety of Alaska's fisheries from Southeast to the Bering Sea for over 30 years. He has owned and operated a Bristol Bay drift gill net business since 2002 and is vice president of United Fishermen of Alaska. He lives in Anchorage.