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Why risk lucrative salmon fishery to line British trousers at expense of Alaskans?

Courtenay Gomez & Kim Williams
Scott Garrett photo

Over the last few weeks, the Bristol Bay Times has been reviewing the recently released Peer Review of the Environmental Protection Agency's Watershed Assessment concerning the proposed Pebble Mine. Much attention has been made of this assessment and the peer review process, both here in Alaska and across the entire country.

As a quick refresher, in order to ensure a thorough assessment of the Bristol Bay watershed, EPA scientists gathered information from numerous sources including the State of Alaska, Federal Government, Alaska tribes, scientific institutions, published journals, peer-reviewed research, scientific experts, and Alaska Native tribal elders. The draft EPA assessment (released last May) found that, even at a smaller size and with no major failures, the proposed Pebble project would result in unacceptable adverse impacts to our world-class fishery.

EPA's findings were then submitted to neutral scientific experts for third-party review, which has been covered extensively in the last few issues of the Bristol Bay Times. If you haven't already read the articles, let me sum it up in one short sentence: the EPA peer review is independent, thorough, fair and shows that scientists universally believe Pebble would negatively impact our fisheries.

Predictably, this effort has drawn criticism from the Pebble Partnership but the issue is quite simple - the proposed Pebble Mine deserves a vetting process that matches the quality of the world-class resource it threatens to destroy. The EPA is providing this study in the form of the assessment requested by Bristol Bay tribes, fishermen, and the Bristol Bay Native Corporation.

With a wild salmon fishery that supports at least 14,000 jobs and is valued at nearly $500 million annually, the Bristol Bay watershed has served as a cornerstone of Alaska's economy for generations. Yet, when it comes to protecting the long-term health and vitality of this bedrock industry from the risks associated with developing the world's largest open pit copper mine, the Pebble Partnership and its cohorts expect us to ignore science and instead put blind faith in foreign-owned mining companies to champion Alaska's interests over the interests of its shareholders.

First, concerning the mine scenario - while both EPA and Peer Reviewers have referred to the mine scenario as hypothetical, the Pebble Limited Partnership would like you to believe this mine is a mine of pure fantasy. Nothing could be further from the truth. After all, the peer reviewers rightly recognize that EPA based their mine scenario on documents filed by Northern Dynasty Minerals with state and federal agencies.

Both the peer reviewers and the EPA have made it clear that putting stock into the "no-failure" scenario propagated by Pebble supporters would be a mistake. The response from one reviewer is particularly telling: "Based on the actual history of other major resource extraction projects in Alaska and throughout the world, a 'no failure' assumption seems unrealistic. Rather, the assumption should be that there will be failures, of varying modes and magnitudes, over the life of the project."

Finally, let's remember that this oversight and management must continue in perpetuity, forever, and this is an issue that concerned all of the peer review members.  One reviewer wondered, "Is it acceptable to develop and operate a mine that will require essentially perpetual treatment?" That question seems essential as other reviewers noted, "The potential risks and impacts are fairly and succinctly stated. Given the extremely long-term nature of the projected Pebble project, and the irreversible changes which would be imposed to the region, the risks seem, if anything, understated."

In sum, the majority of the reviewers in various contexts argued that the Watershed Assessment "showed no major inaccuracies or biases in the material," and "fairly and succinctly" states the potential risks and impacts of the proposed Pebble Mine to Bristol Bay.

Courtenay Gomez has a degree in Natural Sciences. Kim Williams has degrees in Biological Sciences and Public Administration. Both live in Bristol Bay and serve as elected members of the Curyung Tribal Council. This article was originally published by The Bristol Bay Times and is reprinted here with permission.

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