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Emotions run high over EPA's Bristol Bay watershed study

Margaret BaumanThe Cordova Times
A stakeholder speaks out against development of the proposed Pebble Mine in Southwest Alaska at the EPA's public comment session at University of Alaska Anchorage on June 4, 2012. Loren Holmes photo

A decision by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to further review and add to information gathered for the Bristol Bay watershed assessment is being greeted with disappointment and dismay by those opposed to a massive copper mine.

Commercial Fishermen for Bristol Bay, a network of nearly 100 organizations that support fishermen and the industry that harvests Bristol Bay sockeye salmon, said this past week they are disappointed with the EPA's decision. The final document initially was scheduled for completion by year's end 2012, but on Feb. 5 the EPA said that more work was needed and the document would be finalized in 2013.

"As the industry most directly affected by EPA's decision to delay, we are disheartened that the agency would drag its review out and only increase the uncertainty for fishermen and processors," said Bob Waldrop, executive director of the Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association.

"Three years ago, commercial fishermen, Alaska Native tribes and sport fishermen asked the Obama Administration to protect the world's greatest sockeye salmon fishery and the 14,000 jobs it sustains from the threats of mega mining. We did not ask for years of study and process."

The EPA's draft watershed assessment and thorough scientific review has already been vetted by an independent panel of experts and a public comment period that produced over 230,000 comments, more than 90 percent of them in support of EPA's review and findings, the group said.

Trout Unlimited also issued a statement expressing disappointment over a second, potentially lengthy review of the draft watershed assessment, which has already been revised once.

"While we appreciate this administration's efforts to survey the risks and impacts of large-scale mining on the world-class natural resources and fisheries of Bristol Bay with sound science, the EPA has already gone above and beyond the letter of the law in drafting its assessment and conducting an independent and transparent review of it," said Tim Bristol, Alaska program director for Trout Unlimited.

While many Bristol Bay residents have expressed disappointment over yet another delay in release of the final watershed assessment, some are not all that disappointed. One prominent industry insider said he figures the EPA is just trying to make sure it has a very solid assessment, and that's a good thing. "I want the final product to be bomb proof," he said.

The Pebble Limited Partnership, the Anchorage based entity that has already invested millions of dollars into exploration and advocacy for the massive copper, gold the molybdenum prospect, has not put out any statement regarding the EPA's decision in the aftermath of its statement last summer that the draft watershed assessment is "inadequate, rushed, and inaccurate."

The PLP, led by chief executive officer John Shively, blasted the draft review last July 26, in a statement on its website, www.pebblepartnership.com

"We don't think the watershed assessment should have ever started, Shively said Feb. 6. "It is a regulatory process that no company in the United States has ever had to go through before they went through the permitting process. It's costing us a lot of money.

"We've been critical of the first work product and apparently they are trying to improve it, but again, it's just causing us more work."

This story first appeared in The Cordova Times. You can reach Margaret Bauman with comments and suggestions at mbauman@thecordovatimes.com