Scientists reviewing a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency assessment of a potential large copper and gold mine in an environmentally sensitive area near Iliamna Lake said Aug. 8 that the agency’s draft watershed assessment needs work, and should not be based on hypothetical mine scenarios.
Some of the scientists said the agency is too pessimistic in its assessment of risks. The EPA asked 12 scientists to review its Bristol Bay watershed assessment last May as an independent review panel.
“As a risk assessment, I would like to see more ‘bracketing’ of the scenarios and performance. This assessment goes more toward the pessimistic outcomes. I’m not comfortable with how it is put together,” said Dirk van Zyl, of the University of British Columbia, one of the scientific reviewers.
Another reviewer, Steve Buckley of WH Pacific, agreed: “I would like to see a broader range of potential impacts,” he said.
Most of the scientists, however, agreed EPA’s document is still a good start toward a risk assessment and that the proposed Pebble mine does pose risks.
The panel held three days of meetings in Anchorage Aug. 7 to Aug. 9. There were comments from the public Aug. 7, including the mine developers, with discussion Aug. 8 among the scientists themselves, but in a session that was open to the public.
The scientists continued discussions Aug. 9 in closed-door sessions.
Final recommendations by the panel to the EPA won’t be completed until later this year, said its chair, Roy Stein of Ohio State University.
Anglo American and Northern Dynasty, working through a joint-venture company, Pebble Limited Partnership, have identified more than 10 billion tons of ore containing copper, gold and molybdenum at a site near Iliamna Lake southwest of Anchorage.
The mine, still in a preliminary planning stage, is controversial because it would be in a watershed of rivers that support salmon spawning. This has prompted fierce opposition from sports fishing groups like Trout Unlimited and Alaska Native communities around Bristol Bay, where salmon fisheries are important.
In the Aug. 8 public discussions by the scientists, most of the review panel said the assessment was incomplete.
“I see this as a screening-level assessment, a good start in identifying areas where additional information is needed,” said William Stubblefield, of Oregon State University.
Paul Whitney, a wildlife ecology consultant based in Portland, Ore., agreed: “This is good as a screening study but it’s incomplete, for one reason that it looks at all wildlife impacts from the perspective of fish only.”
The interactions are really much more complex, he said.
“We know the scenarios were taken from those developed early by Northern Dynasty Minerals for investors,” and that there are alternatives, said David Atkins, a scientist with Watershed Environmental and a member of the review board. “There are many ways this mine can be developed, and it may be that a smaller mine will be permitted. But the components are still there, an open pit, tailings disposal and all the infrastructure that will be needed.
“The scenarios in the assessment document are plausible at a gross level, but how they would be implemented is unclear.”
Buckley, of WH Pacific, agreed: “I don’t feel the scenarios are sufficient. Three or four in addition would be helpful.”
Dirk van Zyl said the scenarios were not realistic but that he also doesn’t see any regulatory agency as having the appetite to permit or a financial institution to fund a 78-year mine.
“A 30-year mine, yes,” he said.
Buckley highlighted another shortcoming in that the importance of surface water and groundwater in sustaining habitat were discussed in the assessment but that there was little about how the two are connected in the area where the mine would be developed.
Phyllis Weber, an ecology consultant with Scannell Scientific Services, said, “The assessment has provided a good overview but it’s incomplete. More is needed on the specific habitats including how marine nutrients are distributed.”
Charles Slaughter, of the University of Idaho, said the assessment is incomplete because it does not address the full range of future developments that would result from the Pebble mine, including other mines.
“The assessment gives short-shrift to that,” Slaughter said. “There will be a lot more affected that by the footprint of this one mine.”
In a separate comment, Slaugher said the EPA failed to reference work that other federal agencies have done, including studies by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management in the 2005 BLM area plan, which closed parts of the region to mineral entry.
“That’s not even mentioned,” by EPA, Slaughter said.
More scenarios needed
Some on the panel said the assessment needs more “bracketing” with scenarios across a wider range of possibilities. The scenarios chosen appear more pessimistic outcomes, they said.
Stein, the panel chair, said he felt the assessment needed a discussion of climate change effects, which will occur over a project like Pebble that could produce for a century. He also said he was gravely concerned about the size of the mine and that water from the mine area will need treatment in perpetuity. That was mentioned in EPA’s assessment in three places, Stein said.
“We have no example today of a mine with very long-term treatment of water,” he said. “I am very concerned that the promises of today’s mine developers may not carry forward to future mine operators.”
John Stednick, of Colorado State University, said the mining industry’s treatment of water goes back to the mid-1980s. “We’re talking about something that could be producing acid drainage for 40,000 years,” he said.
Mining companies traded publically have only recently been noting the financial liability of maintaining long-term water treatment in their financial statements. One that Stednick is aware of is Teck, which noted liabilities stretching to 120 years in its 2010 and 2011 statements.
Steve Buckley, of WH Pacific, said the Red Dog Mine near Kotzebue, although smaller than Pebble, is valuable to look at as an example of a mine with water treatment operating in an upland Arctic environment.
Stein said he is concerned whether there will be sufficient long-term oversight of the project by government agencies. The mine is on state lands, so the primary regulatory responsibility is with the state of Alaska.
“Will the state be able to appropriate funds sufficient for oversight and monitoring?” he asked.
There was also discussion among the scientists of the scenarios of catastrophic failures of the tailing dam.
Dirk van Zyl questioned whether the scenarios of failures laid out in the assessment are representative of facilities being built today. The practice now is to establish independent tailings dam review boards to oversee regulatory procedures and monitoring.
“I do not know of a failure at any facility where such a review board was put in place,” he said. “The failure likelihood (in the EPA assessment) is overstated.”
There was disagreement about that, however. Paul Whitney, another of the reviewers, said he was aware of sediment transport as far as 600 miles downstream after problems developed at hydroelectric dams in British Columbia.
“A sediments transport study should be required to understand the impact of a dam failure in this environment,” he said.
Phyllis Weber said she is less concerned about catastrophic failures of the tailing dam than low-level seepages over extended periods.
“There could be seepage from pit walls, or waste rock that is not quite as benign as thought. This is a problem that should be addressed.”
Stednick, of Colorado State, said the higher altitude and cold climate of the Pebble region may make post-mine reclamation difficult.
“Restoration will take a very long time and we’re talking about more than the mine, but road corridor as well. This is multi-generational,” Stednick said.
However, Paul Whitney, a consultant and a member of the review panel, said there are many examples of reclamation using modern techniques, and that the EPA’s assessment relied on outdated examples.
“Why use the older examples? We’ve moved forward,” Whitney said.
Off-site mitigation for any restoration that cannot be done in the mine area could be difficult.
“Is mitigation even possible? This is a large pristine area, and it will be difficult to find enough non-pristine areas to bring back,” said Paul Whitney.
Whitney also pointed out, however, that the area may not be as pristine as it first appears.
“If 70 percent of the organic nutrients go to fish that are harvested, is the area really ‘pristine’?” he asked. “If that is the case, could one way to accomplish mitigation be to restrict commercial fishing,” of salmon spawned by the streams in the Pebble area.
Whitney said he is concerned about the loss of marine nutrients in the uplands of the watershed, where the mine would be located. He said there should be more focus on this, and that the Alaska-based marine scientists with the university and the state have done a lot of work on the loss of marine nutrients in ecological systems.
The mine developers were generally pleased with the direction the panel appeared to be taking.
“They clearly heard our message Tuesday (Aug. 7),” during public comments, said Thomas Collier, an attorney working with Northern Dynasty Minerals. “Seven out of the 12 opening remarks (in the Aug. 8 open session) indicated the panel members don’t see how a risk assessment can be done using only hypothetical assumptions.”
Several of the scientists said the EPA assessment is more of an initial screening study rather than a true risk assessment, which involves a much more detailed review.
“That is the correct way to view this document,” Collier said.
Collier said he doesn’t believe the assessment is sufficient to support a preemptive veto of the Pebble project under the Clean Water Act 404(c) action.
“It’s likely they will just throw it back into the normal process,” where a formal environmental impact statement is done after the mine developers apply for permits with details of an actual project.
Pebble spokesman Mike Heatwole said the developers are at least a year away from finalizing the proposed mine design and permit applications. One the permits are applied for a formal environmental impact statement process will begin, he said.
Tim Bradner can be reached at email@example.com.