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Scientists hear from Alaskans on controversial EPA mine assessment

EPA photo

The controversy over potential mining development in one of the world's most prolific and pristine fishing grounds landed in Anchorage Tuesday, where a scientific panel convened to analyze whether the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's inquiry into the merits and dangers of such activities in Alaska's Bristol Bay region is on the right track.

The 12-member independent panel of hydrologists, fish biologists, geologists, wildlife experts and other scientists is charged with evaluating the quality of the EPA's first draft of its Assessment of Potential Mining Impacts on Salmon Ecosystems of Bristol Bay, Alaska, published in May. The study concluded that large-scale mining would impact the area's world-class salmon runs  -- whether everything with a future mine goes perfectly as planned or unexpectedly awry.

Although the assessment is touted as being firmly rooted in science, accusations, particularly from supporters of the Pebble Mine project, flew. Pebble supports claimed the EPA analysis was more a political document than a sound analysis of facts and scientific data.

Necessary or overreach?

At stake? The very future of mining in the Bristol Bay region, should the EPA find that based on its watershed assessment, mineral development there should be restricted or blocked using regulatory powers granted under the Clean Water Act.

The Pebble Limited Partnership views this potential pre-project "veto" as an overreach of the agency's authority. But skeptics, including many Alaska Natives who inhabit the region, fear mining poses too great a threat to Bristol Bay's commercial and subsistence salmon fishery. They view an EPA preemptive action as the best way to defend the region from wealthy Outsiders and a pro-resource development state that, some fear, could irreparably harm their home.

Caught in the middle are Alaskans closest to the controversy, residents of the villages everyone seems determined to save. Some have had enough of everyone talking about and for them. Even among these locals, whose convictions are resolute, consensus is elusive.

Because of the issue's sensitivity and the project's enormity, the EPA went out of its way to create what it calls a highly scientific and transparent process. In the two months since the draft study was released, the agency has received nearly 220,000 public comments. Hundreds of people attended hearings held across Alaska and in Seattle. 

On Tuesday, nearly 100 more had registered to deliver their own personal three-minute message to the panel. Regardless what the commenters had to say, they had only 180 seconds in which to say it to the scientists and audience gathered in downtown Anchorage's Dena'ina Civic and Convention Center.

"The EPA did not do this right," said John Shively, the day's first presenter and CEO of the Pebble Limited Partnership. Shively spoke quickly and didn't mince words: He accused the agency of creating an "imaginary mine" that was studied too hastily. Shively also was irked by testimony opposing his project, especially if critics dared exceed the allotted three minutes, even by a few seconds. 

Shively rips report

The Pebble Partnership spent eight years and $120 million studying the social and economic impacts of a smaller region, concentrating on where the copper, gold and molybdenum Pebble deposit lies near Iliamna Lake in Southwest Alaska,  from which two river tributaries flow toward Bristol Bay, Shively said.  Yet the EPA managed to study a larger area in 11 months and largely ignored the science the Pebble group had already assembled, he said.

Shively also set the theme for other complaints that would come later in the day:

• The study was based on a hypothetical model, not a real project;

• It made no allowance for state and federal regulators to effectively monitor the site to avoid or manage mishaps;

• It failed to take into consideration modern-day mining practices; and

•  It offered a project so fantastical it would never pass muster under in today's permitting climate and is not something Pebble would proceed with. The assessment, he told the panel, has "no basis in reality in the 21st century."

Throughout the day, criticisms of the study fell along two main fault lines: the study either underestimated the damaging impacts of mining, or underestimated the benefits it will bring. 

Those who felt the study's impact analysis was too weak criticized the timeline:

• The failure to consider what environmental impacts construction of deep-water ports would cause;

• The effect of chemicals introduced into the environment by explosives work;

• The heightened value of Bristol Bay king salmon runs in light of poor returns on kings statewide; and

• The inability of small communities to handle the influx of people increased development will bring.

Those who felt the study's impact analysis was short sighted complained it failed to quantify the benefit of bringing increased infrastructure to remote, economically depressed areas. Employment opportunities would improve the health of communities, they contended, and keep schools open.

Other members of the mining industry, including employees of the Pebble Partnership, or its investment partner Northern Dynasty Minerals, echoed Shively's critique. 

"Rigorous process"

"We think those statements -- that this is rushed and flawed -- are just inaccurate," EPA Region 10 Administrator Dennis McLerran told reporters during a mid-morning break, defending the agency's work. "We have had a very rigorous process and a lengthy process."

Most -- 90 percent -- of the 220,000 comments that have come in support the EPA's work on the watershed assessment, he said. And he defended the hypothetical mine scenario used in the study, saying it was developed using "real modern mining practices," including information gleaned from the Pebble Partnership's own data and other mining companies, like Northern Dynasty.

"We are really trying to get the science about what makes this watershed tick right," McLerran said.

Through a legal analysis submitted during the public comment period, the Pebble Partnership has telegraphed that if the study is used to thwart its development plans, it's already looking at ways to fight back. It put on record a letter outlining a number of areas where it believes an adverse EPA action won't hold up under legal scrutiny. First, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which oversees permitting, would have to undertake a much more rigorous analysis than what the EPA put together to comply with the National Environmental Protection Act before any final approvals are granted. Also, Pebble believes a negative decision runs counter to established federal mineral development policy and U.S. economic, energy and security interests. And finally, it argues an early veto putting the Pebble deposit off limits violates the compacts entered when the federal government transferred land to the state of Alaska to aid in developing the state's immature economy. 

Combined, Pebble Partnernship and Northern Dynasty have spent $500 million on the mining prospect.

What's the rush?

On Tuesday, an attorney for Northern Dynasty who worked as chief of staff in the Department of the Interior under President Bill Clinton voiced another laundry list of concerns. "I would not have let this assessment out the door," he told the scientific panel, calling any assessment premature because there was not a real project to evaluate. "This single issue eviscerates the scientific validity of this study," he said, adding that he believes the EPA ignored Pebble data because it didn't have time to look at it.

"I see no policy or scientific basis for beginning this study. There must be a political reason. I think this is being done in case the president is not re-elected," he said, speculating that the mine's opponents may be looking for the EPA to use its veto authority before President Barack Obama leaves office, thereby getting what they want even if there’s a change in the nation's leadership.

Nonetheless, some villagers in the Bristol Bay region are unimpressed.

"You got a bone to chew on here," Richard King of the Ekwok village council fired back when it was his turn to speak. "I don't recall anyone being political. We are trying to save a way of life. I don't have a 20-year science degree, but I have been fishing on the Koktulik for 20 years." He called the EPA's study a "breath of fresh air" and expressed distrust that the welfare of the salmon stocks could be entrusted to the mining industry.

For as much as some villagers are adamant no risk to their waterways is acceptable, others are equally resolute that the mine won't cast a curse -- but instead will bring hope to struggling communities.

Changing culture

Jimmy Hurley of Ekwok, unlike King, expressed support for the mine, which he called a "long shot." He wasn't alone.

"There are only a small amount of opportunities for us and we want to continue to live in our villages," said Martha Anelon, a resident of the village of Iliamna. She grew up without electricity, and yet here she is raising children who live in a culture filled with televisions and I-phones. "Our culture is changing," she said, adding that modern technology is a reality of modern life, criticizing the EPA for overlooking the positive impacts development could bring.

In Togiak, Sara McCarr has witnessed the benefits of a mining job first hand. She returned to the village from college when her grandmother fell ill, and at first could not find work.  Jobs were scarce. People were doing drugs. Children as young as 11 years old were drinking alcohol. She has since landed a job as the community liaison for Pebble in her village, and credits it for giving her the stability to stay by her family. "I am really happy to have a job. It's the best job I've ever had," she said.

Fellow Togiak resident Anna Mae Ferguson spoke of how a subsistence lifestyle cannot be measured in money. It is way of life that provides food, fosters self esteem through labor, and demands that people care for each other. She fears a mine with strip these ties away. "As an Alaska Native person I have no desire to disappear," she said.

Lisa Reimers, from the village of Iliamna, located 17 miles from the prospective Pebble site, was irritated the EPA would undertake such an important study without talking to her village council or finding out what her community wants. "We think that no person shall be deprived of the life or liberty without due process of law. There are a lot of people speaking for our village. We speak for ourselves," she said.

Deciding what perspectives to give weight to is no easy task. What some see as poverty is viewed as the richness of culture to others.

"I know what it feels like when I run out of oil at 20 below, it's scary. But I am still proud of my subsistence way of life," said Jennifer Robinette of the Ekuk Village Council, who said money would never be more important to her than her way of life.

The independent scientific panel will spend Wednesday talking among itself about whether there are gaps in the EPA study. A third day of private consultation with the EPA will take place, and then the individual members of the panel will return to their homes across the country, and author their own opinions. A summary of their findings will be made public sometime this fall. Whatever they come up with will be advisory only. As with the public comments that came in this summer, the EPA will have access to the panel's analysis but is not obligated to incorporate their findings into its final report. 

Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com