Dennis McLerran, regional administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency, said, "this is going be a huge decision for the agency."
In Alaska this week for an intensive look at and study of the Bristol Bay watershed, McLerran said the EPA is doing a "pre-study" to decide if the agency should do a more formal review under a section of the Clean Water Act. One possible result is the death of the Pebble gold and copper project.
Foes of the world-class mine had hoped the EPA would simply decide that unacceptable impacts would occur if the prospect were developed. The agency didn't go that far, and instead wants to pull together all available scientific and other information before making a decision on the Clean Water Act provision.
McLerran and colleagues Rick Parkin, lead manager of the Bristol Bay assessment, and David Allnutt, EPA's acting Alaska director, agreed that they know of no other resource situation comparable to Pebble: a huge gold and copper deposit nestled in a remote watershed that feeds the richest salmon fishery in the world.
Alaska history is full of such examples of conflicting resource values -- but none on this scale or with stakes this high.
McLerran stressed that the fundamental question is not just about Pebble -- although that prospect is the main event and remains the subject of passionate debate. What EPA will try to figure out is whether any large-scale resource development can co-exist with the fishery in this watershed. So the EPA team will tap the best available information from hydrology, seismology, topography, meteorology and any other discipline that applies; tap local knowledge in Dillingham and about six villages in the area; walk the development site of the Pebble prospect; and vet the proposed mine operation.
"This is a science-based process," McLerran said. EPA needs to be sure about what determines water quality -- and salmon sustenance -- in the area, and then make a decision about whether unacceptable effects are likely.
The agency aims to have a draft report available for public review and hearings late this year, and a final report in the spring of 2012.
For those who have staked out their positions on Pebble already , the EPA process is bound to be frustrating. Mine advocates would prefer that EPA not be involved at all, and Congress recently had a flurry of anti-EPA proposals. Mine foes want Pebble scrapped now.
Instead, the EPA appears to be doing the right thing: take a rigorous, methodical approach within its brief to protect the environment.
Few Alaskans would argue that Pebble has a high bar to meet. In Sen. Lisa Murkowski's words, Alaskans will not trade fish for minerals. EPA's job is to determine whether the Bristol Bay watershed can produce gold and copper without harm to the sustained yield of millions of salmon.
This is one we need to get right the first time.
BOTTOM LINE: EPA goes to Bristol Bay to see if salmon and gold can safely come from same watershed.