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Both sides tee off on Pebble watershed assessment

In advance of a peer review set for early August in Anchorage, the Environmental Protection Agency is getting an earful from both sides on a draft watershed assessment related to the proposed development of a massive gold mine near Bristol Bay.

The EPA, which spent a year working on an assessment of potential mining impacts on salmon ecosystems of Bristol Bay, is accepting comments through July 23. The external peer review is set for Aug. 7, 8, and 9 in Anchorage, with the public invited to attend the panel's last two sessions.

By July 1, the EPA had received 18 comments, adding to numerous comments made during the EPA's public hearings in June in several Alaska communities. Among those commenting were Carol Ann Woody, an Anchorage-based fisheries scientist who has done extensive field work in the Bristol Bay watershed, and John Shively, chief executive officer of the Pebble Limited Partnership, also in Anchorage.

Risks to human health?

Woody contends the peer review panel would be asked to address whether the draft assessment brought together information to characterize the ecological, geological and cultural resources of the Nushagak and Kvichak watersheds; whether this characterization is accurate, and if any significant information missed would be helpful.

She asks the peer reviewers to consider whether the draft assessment correctly details risks to salmon due to a potential failure of water and leachate collection and treatment from the mine site, as well as from culvert, pipeline or tailings dam failures.

Woody also asked whether the assessment appropriately characterizes risks to wildlife and to human cultures due to risks to fish, and whether the assessment appropriately characterizes risks to human cultures due to risks to water. "The public health issue is important," Woody wrote.

Shively submitted a lengthier statement, urging the EPA to make numerous changes in its direction to how the draft assessment is evaluated by the peer reviewers. The Pebble Limited Partnership also issued a news release calling on the EPA to utilize the company's own environmental baseline document. "EPA has indicated that they did not fully consider our science in their assessment, even though they requested it from us and we gave it to them," Shively said.

Pebble survey cost $120 million

According to Shively, the Pebble Partnership spent nearly eight years and more than $120 million conducting its own scientific survey of the environment in and around the Pebble project area.

Meanwhile, Northern Dynasty Minerals Ltd., of Vancouver, B.C., a partner with London-based Anglo American PLC in the Pebble Partnership, issued a statement saying the EPA had placed unacceptably narrow boundaries on questions that peer experts can ask and investigations they can undertake. Comments and suggestions from Ron Thiessen, president and chief executive officer of Northern Dynasty, are online here.

Kim Williams, executive director of Nunumta Alukestai (Caretakers of the Land) in Dillingham, responded to Shively's criticism of the EPA for not giving more consideration to the Pebble Partnership's environmental baseline document.

"If Pebble wants their data peer reviewed, they should have it peer reviewed as a totally separate document," Williams said. "If they are spending millions of dollars to gather the data, then getting it peer reviewed would be a good thing -- but not in the watershed assessment."

It is not EPA's charge to have the Pebble Partnership's data peer reviewed, and get it into journals, but rather that of the partnership, she said.

Bob Waldrop, executive director of the Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association, described the information offered by Pebble Partnership in its environmental baseline document as a spread sheet, which does not explain what information is behind the conclusions drawn. "If the PLP wants to be taken seriously, they have to give all the information, instead of just their conclusions, he said.

More information on the EPA's Bristol Bay watershed assessment and how to submit comments in advance of the July 23 deadline is here.

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