Pebble study cheers foes, draws fire from state

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s release of a draft watershed assessment of the Bristol Bay region in Southwest Alaska on May 18 has given new ammunition to groups opposing the large copper-gold Pebble mine being studied for development.

Environmental organizations, sports fishing groups and some local communities are opposing the mine because of possible damage to fish-bearing streams caused by chemical releases from the mine, and prompted EPA to undertake the study in early 2011.

The assessment, which discussed a number of potential effects of the mine, prompted a sharp reaction from state officials and companies working to develop the Pebble project, however.

In a statement, Alaska Attorney General Micheal Geraghty expressed concerns that EPA, “could be setting the stage for actions that would block the state’s rights to develop resources on state-owned lands, and for companies holding valid mining claims and permits.”

John Shively, CEO of the Pebble Partnership, the joint-venture company working to develop Pebble, weighed in as well: “We believe that the EPA has rushed its assessment process, and that this is especially problematic in light of the large size of the study area.”

Pebble Partnership is a joint-venture company between Anglo American and Northern Dynasty Minerals.

Mine opponents, however, said the agency is on the right track.

“The EPA is taking the right steps with its comprehensive assessment of Bristol Bay,” said Gordon Robertson, vice president of the American Sportfishing Association, in a statement “This deliberate and careful action will lead to an objective decision that conserves the fishery and related resources of the Bristol Bay region. The sportfishing industry and anglers strongly support the EPA’s actions to protect Bristol Bay.”

Pebble contains an estimated 80.6 billion pounds of copper, 107.4 million ounces of gold and 5.6 billion pounds of molybdeum. If developed, it would be one of the largest mines of its kind in the world.

The state attorney general questioned the EPA’s authority to do such a wide-ranging assessment ahead of the review of state and other federal agencies of an actual project application.

In a letter written in March, Geraghty said EPA’s assessment reaches, “well beyond any process or authority contemplated by the Clean Water Act … neither a petition process (which triggered the review) nor EPA’s process in developing a response are described in the CWA or its associated regulations.”

The assessment affects an area of about 15 million acres, an area about the size of West Virginia, that is mostly state-owned, Geraghty wrote.

The attorney general said EPA’s assessment was rushed and could undercut the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ detailed Section 404(c) review, as well as the state of Alaska’s own review.

Opponents of the Pebble project had petitioned EPA in 2010 to invoke its authority under the Clean Water Act to veto projects that have wide-ranging environmental effects. The agency initiated the assessment as a result of that request.

Shively, of the Pebble Partnership, said the EPA review will have no near-term effect on the company’s evaluation of the project and its work in preparation of applications for permits.

“We’ll just keep on what we’re doing,” Shively said, but he acknowledged the assessment could create additional hoops for the developers to jump through. EPA said the assessment itself is only an informational tool.

In its press release the agency said, “The assessment, when finalized following the important public comment and independent peer review, could help inform future decisions on any large-scale mining in Bristol Bay by both federal and non-federal decision-makers.”

But Shively warned the document could set the stage for an attempt to preempt development.

“We are concerned that the EPA may use this rushed process as the basis or an unprecedented regulatory action against the Pebble Project,” he said. “We believe it would be unprecedented and entirely inappropriate for the EPA to take steps to stop our project before it has been fully designed,” Shively said.

Northern Dynasty Minerals’ President and CEO Ron Thiessen supported Shively’s comments.

“To suggest that the EPA over a course of a single year can meaningfully study a region of some 20,000 square miles and assess the effects of a project for which a final design is not yet complete, and for which key environmental mitigation strategies are yet being developed, is pure folly. We have every expectation that the deep flaws in the draft Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment report will be exposed during the scientific peer review and public comment processes to come over the next several months,” Thiessen said in a statement.

EPA, however, said it doesn’t have to have a detailed description of the Pebble proposal to do an assessment, and that “conceptual” models developed with regional stakeholders were sufficient.

“This is not an in-depth assessment of a specific mine, but rather an examination of the impacts of mining activities at the scale and with the characteristics realistically foreseeable in the Bristol Bay region, given the nature of the mineral deposits in the watershed and he requirements for successful mining development,” the EPA said in the summary of the assessment.

“The assessment largely analyses and mine scenario that reflects the expected characteristics of mining operations at the Pebble deposit,” and was developed to understand the potential impacts in the Nushagak and Kvichak River watersheds, which could be affected by the mine.”

EPA’s analysis considers scenarios of blocked streams, reduced flow of water and removal of wetlands even if there is no failure of environmental protection systems on the mine, but is also considers the effects of four types of mine failures that have occurred with other large mines after they were closed.

These include failure of the tailings impoundment dam, a spill from a slurry pipeline moving concentrates of copper and other metals to a tidewater port, water collection and treatment failures, and problems like failures of culverts on roads.

The assessment also included cumulative effects which could occur if there are other large mines like Pebble that are eventually developed in the region, and it noted exploration activities of other companies in the region at the Groundhog, Big Chunk and Humble prospects.

Tim Bradner can be reached at tim.bradner@alaskajournal.com.

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