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Hundreds of scientists sign letter urging EPA to act against Pebble

Lisa DemerAlaska Dispatch News
The Mulchatna River lies at the heart of the Nushagak watershed. All five Pacific salmon species spawn in the Mulchatna and its tributaries, which include the Koktuli and Stuyahok Rivers. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

A group of 360 scientists, researchers and university professors signed a letter hand-delivered Tuesday that urges the Environmental Protection Agency to protect Bristol Bay from the proposed Pebble mine.

The letter was given to Dennis McLerran, the Seattle-based administrator of EPA's region 10, before his morning talk at an environmental conference in Anchorage.

The scientists' names fill more than 12 pages, starting with Peter Abrams, a University of Toronto professor emeritus in ecology and evolutionary biology, and ending with Roman Zurek, an associate professor at the Institute of Nature Conservation at the Polish Academy of Science. In between are scientists from all over the country and world, including Alaska.

The group praised the EPA for its study, released last month, that concluded a big mine posed serious risks to Bristol Bay's massive sockeye salmon runs -- the biggest in the world. Pebble Ltd. Partnership proposes developing a copper and gold mine at the headwaters of two Bristol Bay salmon-producing rivers. A coalition of tribes and Alaska Native groups had petitioned the EPA to veto the mine through the Clean Water Act even before developers seek major permits. Instead the agency undertook the watershed study.

"The preponderance of evidence presented in the Watershed Assessment indicates that large-scale hard rock mining in the Bristol Bay watershed threatens a world-class fishery and uniquely rich ecosystem, and we urge the Administration to act quickly to protect the area," the scientists said in their letter. "Therefore, we urge EPA to use its authority under the Clean Water Act to take the necessary steps to protect Bristol Bay."

A few of the 360 who signed on have worked for groups opposing Pebble or belong to advocacy organizations, including Trout Unlimited and the Alaska Conservation Foundation.

McLerran told the crowd at the Alaska Forum on the Environment, being held this week at the Dena'ina Civic and Convention Center, that he would make a decision soon.

Pebble's backers have criticized the EPA report as premature and not based on modern mining practices. McLerran said it came from Northern Dynasty Minerals own detailed report to the Securities and Exchange Commission in February 2011 as well as other information from the mining industry. State officials last year complained to the EPA that the Northern Dynasty report was a document for investors, not an environmental plan.

"The assessment does incorporate state-of-the-art mining practices and mitigation," McLerran said at the environmental forum.

As McLerran spoke from the podium, at the back of the conference room Gary Cline of Dillingham and Sam Snyder of the Alaska Conservation Foundation held up a banner that said "Thank You Administrator McLerran. The science is clear. Protect Bristol Bay." Snyder is among those who signed the letter.

McLerran said the assessment is an "extensive scientific report, really the best one I think we've ever done."

But it is not an attempt at regulation and does not make any policy recommendations, he noted.

"We wanted to get the science done, we wanted to have the science piece before we contemplated what's next," McLerran said.

The EPA report doesn't block Pebble from applying for permits today, he said.

"The assessment will however serve as a basis for EPA's response to the May 2010 request from the Bristol Bay region tribes that we use our Clean Water Act authority," McLerran said. "We will have a very direct response soon."

After his talk, he said the letter from so many scientists and researchers "does add credibility to the science."

He said he could not specify a time frame for EPA's decision.

"We're giving it a hard look. We're making sure that everybody at the decision-making level has a chance to read the assessment and look at the options."

Reach Lisa Demer at or 257-4390.


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