A panel of 12 independent scientists convened on Aug. 7 to begin evaluating the science behind a federal study that found large-scale mining near the headwaters of Bristol Bay could hurt the productivity and sustainability of one of the world’s premier salmon fisheries.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) conducted a watershed assessment in response to concerns about development of a massive large copper-and-gold prospect in the Bristol Bay region. The draft report was released in May, with a final report that could affect permitting decisions for the proposed Pebble Mine perhaps coming by the end of the year, after the scientific peer review panel weighs in and public comments are analyzed.
EPA Regional Administrator Dennis McLerran said the focus, at this point in the process, is on “getting the science right.”
The EPA study was nott specific to Pebble. The Pebble Limited Partnership, the group behind the mine, has not yet submitted a development plan. But it is the biggest and most controversial claim in the Bristol Bay region, which produces about half of the wild sockeye salmon worldwide.
Pebble and its supporters told the scientists the EPA study was rushed and flawed. The hypothetical mine analyzed by the EPA would never be allowed by regulators under current mining rules, John Shively, the Pebble Partnership’s chief executive, told the panel, Alaska’s News Tribune reported.
The review panel, selected by EPA contractor Versar from a list of publicly nominated candidates and those Versar found on its own, is intended to act as a cross-check on the science used by EPA. The panel’s findings are expected to be published this fall, and used by EPA to help identify areas of concern that might need more attention or additional analysis.
The panel opened three days of meetings in Anchorage on Aug. 7, with the first day reserved for public comment focused on specific topics.
The EPA assessment was billed as a look at the impacts of the kind of mining needed to successfully develop the deposit, not an in-depth assessment of any specific project. It used a hypothetical mine scenario — but one that McLerran said drew in part on plans and data put forth by Pebble and Northern Dynasty Minerals Ltd.
The Pebble Mine is a joint venture between Northern Dynasty and Anglo American plc.
Pebble says the prospect is one of the largest of its kind in the world, with the potential of producing 80.6 billion pounds of copper, 5.6 billion pounds of molybdenum and 107.4 million ounces of gold. Supporters of the mine say it would bring much-needed jobs to economically depressed rural Alaska, but opponents fear it could disrupt, if not destroy, a way of life in the region.
McLerran said EPA received more than 220,000 comments on its draft assessment, many of which came on form letters, with “well over 90 percent” of total commentors supportive of EPA’s work on the draft. The comment period closed last month, above objections from state leaders and others, who sought an extension.
EPA has gotten push-back from resource development groups and the state of Alaska, among others, who consider the agency’s actions to be premature and an overreach.