JUNEAU -- The heated battle over the proposed Pebble mine in Southwest Alaska is shifting to science, with panels weighing in on different reports and in the process adding more fuel to the fight.
The Pebble Limited Partnership, the company proposing the massive gold and copper mine near the headwaters of the largest sockeye salmon fishery in the world, plans to have an independent panel of experts review its scientific data.
The effort is intended, in part, to point out any shortcomings, but it's also aimed at helping people understand the scientific studies.
This comes as another panel is set to release its report evaluating the science behind a federal draft assessment that found large-scale mining near the headwaters of Bristol Bay could hurt the productivity and sustainability of local fisheries.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which drafted that report, plans to use the panel's findings to help identify any areas of concern that might need more attention or additional analysis.
EPA's work ultimately could lead to restrictions or an outright veto of mining activities in the region.
Critics of the EPA draft have called the study rushed, flawed and based on a theoretical mine project, the likes of which would never be permitted in the U.S.
The state of Alaska, resource development groups and others have labeled EPA's actions overreaching and premature. Supporters, however, see EPA's work as a step toward protecting the region against harmful mining activity.
Tim Bristol, Alaska program director for Trout Unlimited, a group critical of the proposed mine, said the two entities are asking different things through their processes: The EPA is asking whether this kind of development in the Bristol Bay region is the right thing to do, while Pebble wonders how it can be done right.
"This (second scientific review panel) is going to be a foil to whatever the EPA comes up with," he said. Lindsey Bloom, also with Trout Unlimited, said the two different processes may be confusing to the public.
Some conservationists, fishermen and others, including Trout Unlimited, have cast Pebble's work as bought-and-paid-for science that should be viewed as tilted in favor of development. Pebble says that's not the case. Officials affiliated with the project have said the studies are intended to provide an in-depth look at environmental and social conditions in the region and will help with monitoring and ensuring the mine project does not alter the environment.
The Keystone Center, based in Colorado, is convening the experts beginning next week in Anchorage to review the Pebble studies.
Todd Bryan, a senior Keystone associate, said that while Keystone's work is being underwritten, the panelists are working without compensation to help avoid any appearance of a conflict of interest. Those chosen are not connected to either side of the debate as, say, activists, employees or paid consultants, he said.
"Our goal is not to influence anyone's decision about the mine but rather to help people be better informed about it," Bryan said. Panelists won't recommend whether a mine should be built but will focus on the adequacy of the studies, he said.
Pebble spokesman Mike Heatwole said if there are areas that require additional work, the partnership wants to know that.
There is distrust on both sides, with Pebble and its allies viewing EPA's process warily and Pebble critics equally leery of what the partnership is doing.
For years, a public relations battle has raged over the project; the Pebble partnership, in its more recent ads, has touted the role of copper in everyday life, including the commercial fishing industry.
The partnership has called the deposit one of the largest of its kind in the world, with the potential of producing 80.6 billion pounds of copper, 107.4 million ounces of gold and 5.6 billion pounds of molybdenum.
Supporters of the project say it would bring much-needed jobs to economically depressed rural Alaska but opponents fear it will fundamentally harm the environment and change a way of life based on a healthy fishery.
Heatwole has said the partnership is on track to release a mine plan by early next year, and to move ahead by seeking state and federal permits.
By BECKY BOHRER