Surprise, Surprise: Pebble Mine Partnership Immediately Attacks EPA's Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment

You may have heard that, after 15 months of study, the US Environmental Protection Agency last week released in draft for public comment its Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment, characterizing the natural resources in the region and documenting the potential impacts on those resources of large-scale mining, like the proposed Pebble Mine. 

EPA’s action is big news.

But you may not have heard the cries of anguish from the mining consortium behind the Pebble Mine, a reaction grounded more, one suspects, in the consortium’s desire to enrich its shareholders by mining Alaska's minerals than in a fair review of the EPA Assessment.  No surprise there.  Using words like “rushed,” ”inadequate,” and “premature,” the Pebble Limited Partnership immediately attacked the Watershed Assessment as an “EPA overreach” with “negative economic implications” not just for the region but for all of Alaska.

Never mind that EPA's Assessment is a scientific document and carries no regulatory mandate.  In fact, the Pebble Partnership's apparent notion that science undertaken by someone other than the Pebble Partnership is considered an "overreach" and a threat to the economic viability of the project speaks volumes about the project itself -- and about the questionable quality, objectivity, and reliability of the Pebble Partnership's own "science."   

Never mind the obvious economic implications if EPA were to ignore the project's risks to one of the world’s most productive wild salmon fisheries and the communities that depend on it – in other words, if EPA were to ignore its legal duty under the federal Clean Water Act.  (See NRDC's legal brief to EPA.)  The economic consequences of contaminating the Bristol Bay commercial, recreational, and subsistence fisheries would be staggering.

Never mind that the demand for EPA review came from the overwhelming majority of residents of the Bristol Bay region, including Native communities, the region’s largest developer the Bristol Bay Native Corporation and its 9,000 shareholders, and the Bristol Bay Native Association representing the region's federally recognized tribes, supported by a wide and diverse range of interests, from commercial, recreational, and subsistence fishermen to hunters and conservationists and elected officials, including the current President of the Alaska Senate Gary Stevens and members of the U.S. Senate.  Public opinion polls show that over 80 percent of the region’s residents support EPA’s review and oppose the Pebble Mine.

And never mind the self-interest of the foreign mining companies in seeking to defer or avoid scrutiny of the Pebble Mine for as long as possible as they advance a scheme that would generate billions of tons of mining waste (laced with toxics), to be stored FOREVER in a massive tailings pond sitting at the head of the Bristol Bay watershed. Of course, they say, they would never proceed if there is a significant risk to the salmon.  But there is nothing they can do to eliminate the risk of large-scale mining at this location, no matter the cost of their environmental review or the number of mitigating conditions. And, in any case, it is inevitably the people of the Bristol Bay region who will be left to co-exist with the risk – and with the toxic waste.

According to EPA scientists, if something goes wrong, the salmon, other fish species, and their habitat will be devastated. Even if nothing goes wrong – a virtual impossibility if past large-scale mining experience is any guide -- EPA concludes that the impact on the salmon and their habitat will be widespread and irreparable.  And it is this assessment, based on the best scientific expertise EPA can muster, that the Pebble Partnership would prefer the public never hear.

The Pebble Mine is a project that must be stopped, not because of a categorical opposition to mining and not because of some presumed ill will by Pebble's proponents..  Indeed, the Pebble Partnership and its CEO John Shively may be sincere in their commitment to build a state of the art mine if they get the chance.  The Pebble Mine must be stopped because, as one Anglo American executive conceded when I met with her in London, "mining is a dangerous business," even under the best of circumstances -- and it must not be allowed at the headwaters of Bristol Bay.  The problem, as former Alaska Senate President Rick Halford has said, is this mine in this place. 

We shouldn’t gamble what we can’t afford to lose, and we can’t afford to lose the Bristol Bay fisheries.   Period.

EPA deserves credit, not criticism.  Its carefully crafted, science-based Watershed Assessment confirms the significant risk and unavoidable impacts of the Pebble Mine – which is precisely why it's already been attacked by the Pebble Partnership.