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Pebble holds meetings on environmental data

Posted: March 29, 2012 - 10:32am

Representatives with the Pebble Partnership hold two seminars this week on the project's 20,000-page Environmental Baseline Document.

Meetings will be from 5 to 8 p.m. today in Soldotna at the Kenai Peninsula College Commons, and noon to 3 p.m. Friday at the Cowles Council Chambers, Homer City Hall.

Mike Heatwole, vice president of public affairs for the Pebble Partnership, will open the presentation. Some consultants and scientists who worked on the baseline studies also will attend, particularly those who did studies on water, fish, meteorology, wildlife and birds.

"I would encourage people who have questions about the project — this is a great opportunity to talk to people not only about the project, but with the scientists," said Nance Larsen, communications manager for the Pebble Partnership.

The 53-chapter Environmental Baseline Document represents environmental studies done by more than 40 consulting firms and 100 scientists from 2004 to 2008 of the Pebble Project, a proposed copper, gold and molybdenum mine near Lake Iliamna. The $120 million study of the Bristol Bay and lower Cook Inlet regions did physical and chemical research in the areas of climate, water quality, trace elements; biological research in the areas of wetlands, fish and aquatic invertebrates, wildlife, habitat; and social research in the areas of land and water use, socioeconomics and subsistence.

Pebble released the Environmental Baseline Document last February. It also released a summary, "The Pebble Environment." The raw data has not been publicly released, Larsen said. "The Pebble Environment" and the Environmental Baseline Document are available at www.pebbleresearch.com, with downloads available by chapter and section.

Larsen said the Environmental Baseline Document will be used as part of the permitting process should the Pebble Partnership proceed with plans to develop the mine. The project is in the pre-permitting stage and won't finalize its preliminary development plan and start applying for large-mine permits until late 2012 or early 2013.

The most important part of the Environmental Baseline Document is the characterization of the area, Larsen said. The Environmental Baseline Document would be used to develop engineering plans for the mine.

"It also will be a critical piece we look at when it comes to mitigation plans," she said.

The Pebble Partnership has said it has not made a commitment to developing the mine project, and has urged the public not to judge the mine until all studies are done and a development plan made. With the Environmental Baseline Document studies done, Larsen was asked if that meant Pebble was ready to make a decision to proceed.

"It's one piece of a very complex portion of moving forward with the plan," she said.

It's too early to say how the Environmental Baseline Document would affect project decisions, Larsen added. For example, one proposal is for an open-pit mine, while another proposal is for partially an open-pit mine and partially an underground mine.

"The more valid data we can have, the more options we can consider for the development plan," she said. "The data is really critical for looking at options to move forward."

Pebble has done an incredible amount of research, said Bob Shavelson, Inletkeeper for Cook Inletkeeper, the Homer based environmental group that has been critical of the Pebble project.

"But no amount of research can avoid the fact that they will destroy salmon resources forever if they go ahead with this project," he said. "If nothing else, they're documenting the incredible habitat and resources that will be destroyed by their project."

Providing baseline data is the point of its studies, Larsen said. Pebble also used quality controls to make sure research followed set procedures.

"That was done so we did have an established historical account of what's there now, but moving forward so the data is secure," she said.

Another environmental advocacy group questioned the research.

"It wasn't done independently," said Dave Atchison, Kenai representative for Trout Unlimited, sport fisheries advocacy group. "It's science paid for by them."

The size of the Environmental Baseline Document, while comprehensive, also can be daunting, Atchison said.

"That's typically the way mining companies operate," he said. "When it comes down to going for permits, they submit so much information its hard to decipher."

Larsen said that normally baseline data isn't released until the permitting stage and as part of permit applications.

"It's so we can spark dialogue, so we can understand what the environment looks like," she said in why Pebble released the Environmental Baseline Document before the permitting process.

"It's critical that we understand the environment. We want to be good environmental stewards," Larsen said.

Scientists critical of the Pebble Project, and who have raised questions about the project, also have done their own independent research. Information on that research is available at www.pebblescience.org.

Michael Armstrong can be reached at michael.armstrong@homernews.com.

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