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Draft EPA report: Big Alaska mine like Pebble could harm salmon

Margaret BaumanThe Cordova Times

Large-scale mining at the headwaters of the Bristol Bay watershed would result in extensive loss of salmon streams and wetlands critical to fish habitat, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said on Friday. The comments came in a revised draft Bristol Bay watershed assessment, which the EPA says it plans to finalize before year's end. In the interim, the EPA will accept public comment on the revised assessment through May 31.

Dennis McLerran, EPA Region 10 administrator based in Seattle, said that the agency feels the scenarios they used in the assessment, which include those of proponents of the mine, are quite realistic.

"Our focus right now is on getting the assessment right," he said.

Key changes in the revised assessment include refinement and better explanation of the mine scenarios assessed, incorporation of modern conventional mining practices into mine scenarios, additional details on projected water loss and water quality impacts on stream reaches, drainage of waste rock leachate to streams, and mine site water balance to assessment of potential mine impacts.

Release of the lengthy document drew prompt criticism from the Pebble Limited Partnership, created in 2007 by Northern Dynasty Minerals of Vancouver, British Columbia, and Anglo America, an international diversified mining and natural resources firm based in London. Last week the Pebble Limited Partnership announced that it would spend $80 million this year on environmental studies, engineering and other work aimed at beginning the permitting process for development of the mine.

John Shively, chief executive officer of the Pebble Partnership, said it appeared that 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."

"The Pebble Partnership is simply asking for due process: the right to submit a permit application, and to have our plans reviewed, based on the best available science and the relevant federal, state and local laws," he said.

Bob Waldrop, executive director of the Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association, said commercial fishermen were pleased with how the report describes the impacts and severe risks of large-scale hard rock mining in Bristol Bay, "and makes clear that the world's largest and most valuable sockeye salmon fishery is no place for a mega project like the proposed Pebble mine.

"We are fighting to protect 14,000 American jobs and an entire industry from a risky proposal to dig the largest open pit mine in North America in the heart of the Bristol Bay salmon nursery," Waldrop said.

"The science is clear: developing Pebble mine will harm salmon and destroy streams even if nothing ever goes wrong at the mine," said Tim Bristol, director of Trout Unlimited's Alaska program .

Bristol said the proposed mine is more threatening to renewable resource jobs than any other mine proposal in Alaska, and is planned for the worst possible location.

To date the EPA has received some 233,000 public comments on the mine. Now the agency is asking for more.

A copy of the revised assessment and information on how to submit comments to the EPA are at http://www.epa.gov/bristolbay

This story first appeared in The Cordova Times.