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EPA report predicts Pebble Mine could devastate Alaska salmon runs

Suzanna Caldwell
EPA photo

The Environmental Protection Agency on Wednesday released its final report on the impacts of the proposed Pebble Mine, finding that the mine could have devastating environmental consequences to Southwest Alaska's Bristol Bay region and the fishery it supports.

Jeff Frithsen, senior scientist and special projects manager at EPA office of research and development, said the footprint of the mine alone would affect 24-94 miles of streams, as well as 1,300 to 5,000 acres of wetlands. The 86 miles of roads needed for the transportation corridor would affect 64 different rivers and streams, 55 of which support salmon. Frithsen said any loss in the habitat could affect the fishery as a whole, which is considered one of the most lucrative in the world.

It's the latest blow in recent weeks in the ongoing quest to develop Pebble Mine. The massive open-pit mine project would be one of the largest in North America. Located in Southwest Alaska near Lake Iliamna, the prospect has an estimated 80.6 billion pounds of copper, 107.4 million ounces of gold and 6.6 billion pounds of molybdenum. While proponents of the mine have argued it would bring jobs to a region starved of them, the mine has met fierce opposition from environmental groups who have argued the environmental impacts would be devastating.

Last month, Rio Tinto, the London-based mining group that owns 19 percent of the Northern Dynasty's shares, said it was considering pulling out of the project upon further review. Another key player, Anglo American, announced in September of 2013 that it would take a $300 million hit to pull out of the project, in which it had a 50 percent share.

According to the EPA assessment some of the other possible effects of the proposed mine could include:

• The direct loss of up to 94 miles of salmon-supporting streams.
• Destruction of up to 5,350 acres of wetlands, ponds, and lakes in the Bristol Bay region.
• Alteration of the flows of up to 33 miles of salmon-supporting streams, likely affecting ecosystem structure and function.
• A requirement for collection, storage, treatment and management of extensive quantities of mine waste and wastewater during mining and “long after mining concludes” -- a time frame that could be between hundreds to thousands of years.

While the conclusions are damning, Dennis McLerren, administrator for the EPA region encompassing Alaska and the Pacific Northwest, said they are purely scientific and will not immediately affect any regulatory decision -- though the report will be used for future decisions.

“We at EPA will decide how to respond to requests from tribes and others to take regulatory action, but that's not what's happening today,” McLerren said.

According to the EPA, nearly a million public comments were submitted for the assessment over two periods, including a draft proposal in 2012. In May 2010 the EPA initiated the assessment in response to tribes and others in the area concerned over the environmental impacts of the mine.

Northern Dynasty, sole owner of the project, was quick to condemn the assessment's findings.

"Publication of the final watershed assessment is really the final chapter in a very sad story," said Northern Dynasty President and CEO Ron Thiessen in a statement. "We believe EPA set out to do a flawed analysis of the Pebble Project, and they certainly succeeded with both their first and second drafts of the (assessment). We have every expectation that the final report released today is more of the same."

In the statement, Thiessen said the company looks forward to defining a proposed development plan for the mine, and was confident that the environmental impact statement process, to be conducted by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, will provide a “more rigorous, fair and transparent review of the science surrounding this important project."

But while Northern Dynasty questioned the science, opponents of the project hailed its thoroughness.

“With today’s release, science has weighed in: Bristol Bay, its existing jobs and way of life could be irreparably damaged by a large-scale mine that is the size and scope of the Pebble project -- and therefore, our fish, our people and our cultures must be protected,” said Bristol Bay Native Corporation president and CEO Jason Metrokin.

Alaska reacts

Ed Fogles, deputy commissioner for the Department of Natural Resources and who oversees mining in the state, said the assessment is not about Pebble Mine, but about how we can use 8 million acres of state land. That equals about 10 percent of land-based assets that could be affected. Fogles warned against the EPA adding restrictions on how to use that land.

“It won’t fly with us,” he said at Wednesday Commonwealth North forum. “There’s going to be a big battle if they go in that direction.”

Gov. Sean Parnell joined in the chorus against the EPA findings.

“This report is little more than a pretext for an EPA veto of the state’s permitting process, something the federal Clean Water Act prohibits. As my record demonstrates, I will not trade one resource for another, and every permitting application -- when filed -- deserves scientific and public scrutiny based on facts, not hypotheticals.”

Deantha Crockett, executive director of the Alaska Mining Association, was “incredibly disappointed” by the EPA's findings Wednesday.

“It's a gigantic injustice to those of us who live in the state,” she said. “Whether you do or don't support Pebble.”

She too criticized the science behind the report, saying that by not using an extensive mine plan in their assessment -- a plan that hasn't been submitted -- the EPA's report is missing huge pieces of what the proposed mine would look actually look like.

“The conclusions they came up with are just junk,” she said.

Crockett said she believes the decision will have negative impacts on future developments in the state, outside of Pebble. She also wondered what kind of confidence investors are going to have if their projects get nixed before they even have a plan set up. She noted that projects in both Prince of Wales island in Southeast Alaska and Livengood in the Interior could both be directly affected by today's EPA decision.

“This is the kind of thing coming out of a regulatory system that can make or break projects in this state,” she said.

Crockett wondered which of the thousands of comments the EPA received were actually taken into consideration. But BBNC president Metrokin supported the EPA's process.

“EPA has spent considerable time and effort, a lot of which comes from the Pebble Partnership,” he said. “I don't buy into they had a preconceived idea of how to approach this.

“I have to have faith government will go about in the best way they can.”

Metrokin said BBNC now hopes the EPA will follow through on the corporation's request that the agency use its clean water authority to protect Bristol Bay.

“What the outcome will be will be the protection of the region, the fishery, the people, and the livelihood from the adverse impacts of this project,” he said.

Reporter Alex DeMarban contributed to this report.