Is there selective editing?: Pebble releases shed too much heat, not enough light on plan

Voices Of The Peninsula

Posted: Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Media releases about Pebble have shed a lot more heat than light. And what light they’ve shed has been selectively aimed at promoting the benefits of particular interest groups. It’s the old conflict between whose ox gets slaughtered, and who gets to feast on it. Lodge owners, sportfishing guides, commercial ocean fishermen and other people who currently make a good living from the mine’s impact zone don’t want to lose their “way of life.” Other businesses, which expect to make a lot of money off mining, want to expand their way of life. Each side spotlights only facts and arguments that will help it win.

Such biased adversarial infighting serves the needs of special interests. But two sets of half-truths don’t add up to one whole truth -- which is what we, the public, need in order to understand what we have to gain and to lose from Pebble. The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

What are all the options for mining there? What are the benefits and costs of each? In what ways can mining be done there without jeopardizing salmon or caribou? To what extent is this new economic fountainhead compatible with existing ones? If the headwaters of a stream are dammed, how would that affect salmon production if all the pollution safeguards work as planned? How would safeguards be affected by earthquakes? What are the risks, and what is the compensation for those whose livelihoods are put at risk? And so on.

Northern Dynasty may have spent millions of dollars on impact studies. But how sound are their studies? Are they designed to yield objective results? Will those results be made public in a reasonable time frame? Or are their studies designed to yield only results that ND wants the public to hear? Even if their studies are objective, will all results be released to the public or will ND cherry-pick through them and release only what favors them? Will adverse results be hidden where critics can’t find them?

Impact assessments are usually gray, not black or white. Predicted levels of impact are matters of probability; there is always a range of uncertainty. How tightly uncertainty is narrowed depends on the studies are done. If results are favorable to a developer, every effort might be made to prove high certainty; if results are unfavorable, they are left very uncertain. This isn’t, of course, to point a finger at Northern Dynasty. That’s simply how the “game is played” in an adversarial arena.

The only way to protect the public against biased, if not dishonest, impact assessments by any developer is to make assessment a nonadversarial process. Qualified experts representing the public, including critics, need to be able to participate in: a) planning impact studies, to assure they use valid methodology which can produce reliable, objective results; b) monitoring implementation of those studies to make sure they are conducted according to plan; c) assessing quality control e.g., by spot-checking results; d) frequently reviewing ND’s results; and e) assuring that needed modifications are made ASAP.

That’s how things should be done. And, in Canada -- Northern Dynasty’s home base -- that’s approximately how things are sometimes done. Supposedly, for major projects in Canada, developers must allow participation by critics and-or fund independent impact assessment by critics.

Here, the public depends on government oversight to assure objectivity. However, what government agency is immune to political pressure?

Here too, developers typically keep their impact results confidential until the last minute. Then, when it comes time for permit hearings, critics are hit with so much data that it would take an army of experts to assess it within the 30 days or whatever other period is allowed for public response. That’s seldom enough time for critics to even get organized and funded, much less to hire experts and get their findings. And there is no opportunity to go back into the field and fill in data gaps. Critics are steamrollered.

It’s time for Northern Dynasty to open its impact assessment process, and for their critics to help gather and assess facts, rather fear-mongering.

Stephen Stringham is the president of WildWatch Consulting. He lives in Soldotna.

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