BRISTOL BAY:

Alaska mine developer slams EPA's 'deeply flawed' watershed study

The company exploring the possible development of a massive gold and copper mine in southwestern Alaska is sharply criticizing U.S. EPA's latest report on the potential impacts of large-scale resource extraction in the Bristol Bay region.

The agency's revised draft watershed assessment released Friday said a large-scale mine would destroy streams and wetlands and damage valuable salmon fisheries downstream (E&ENews PM, April 26).

In response, Pebble LP -- a venture by mining giants Northern Dynasty Minerals Ltd. and London-based Anglo American PLC -- is urging EPA to scrap the watershed assessment launched in February 2011 amid concerns over the mine.

"While we need to review the document in detail, it seems the EPA has not changed its deeply flawed approach of creating and evaluating a completely hypothetical mine plan, instead of waiting until a real, detailed mine plan is submitted to regulators as part of a complete permit application," said CEO John Shively in a lengthy statement.

EPA revised its 2012 draft watershed assessment in response to concerns about its study methods and analysis. The new, expanded report includes more information on likely mine scenarios and best mining practices.

The new assessment, which the agency is making available for public comments and scientific peer review, also expands on possible impacts from trucks, pipelines and waste piles of rock that could be taller than the Washington Monument.

"Generally, the updated assessment affirms the conclusions of the initial assessment," EPA Region 10 Administrator Dennis McLerran said in a conference call Friday.

But Pebble, worried that EPA will eventually use the watershed assessment to block federal permitting for the mine, is repeating its call for "due process," shorthand for the ability to go through the permitting process.

"We have spent the better part of 10 years working on designing a development plan for a mine at the Pebble Deposit utilizing some of the premier mining engineers and environmental scientists in the world," Shively said. "The EPA has spent two short years on a desktop exercise with little or no input from miners."

He added, "At a time when the entire executive branch is having to cut important program funding because of sequestration, it is stunning that the EPA continues to pursue this matter instead of waiting for a permit application to review through the well-established regulatory process."

During a recent hearing, Alaska's senators asked acting EPA Administrator Bob Perciasepe whether the agency had enough funds to complete the assessment.

Alaska lawmakers are trying to walk a line between mine supporters and Alaskans concerned about the development, as the issue has become deeply controversial in the state.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), the ranking member of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, has met with mine opponents but repeated her belief that EPA would not have the legal authority to pre-emptively veto the mine.

"Attempts to prejudge any mining project before the full details of that proposal are submitted to the EPA for review is unacceptable," she said in response to EPA's new assessment. "The permitting process exists for a reason, and a federal agency can no more ignore the established process than can an applicant."

Pebble supporters, concerned about potential EPA actions, have also been critical of the process.

Daniel McGroarty, head of the pro-mining group American Resources Policy Network, expressed concerns about EPA's citing research by Stratus Consulting Inc. and scientist Ann Maest, authors of a now-discredited report about Chevron Corp. activities in Latin America.

"Even before publicly admitting to falsifying research, Maest had been hired as a consultant by numerous anti-mining advocacy groups, calling her objectivity into question," McGroarty said.

But EPA's assessment counts on support from numerous scientists, politicians and conservation groups.

Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) was the first senator to call for the agency to use Section 404 of the Clean Water Act to block large-scale mining, concerned about food processors and fishermen based in her state who depend on Bristol Bay salmon.

"This report is evidence of the devastating impact that the proposed Pebble Mine would have on Bristol Bay salmon and the thousands of Washington state jobs that depend on them," Cantwell said in a statement.

Bob Waldrop, executive director of the Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association, said, "Once again, EPA's findings make it clear that delay is not an option for protecting the Bristol Bay salmon economy."

Pebble's backers say the company may submit the mine for permitting this year, potentially before EPA has completed its assessment process.

"As we have consistently stated," Shively said, "if we can't build a mine that co-exists with a healthy fishery, we will not build the mine."

Asked whether a new concrete Pebble mine plan would affect EPA's review, McLerran said the agency was confident in its science and potential mining scenarios. He said the report could even help inform the permitting process.

"We really want to get the science right," he said.