Science Panel Hears an Earful on Pebble Mine

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) convened a panel of independent scientists in Anchorage, Alaska to review its draft Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment.  The three-day panel is tasked with reviewing the science behind EPA's study, which found that large-scale mining  -- like the proposed Pebble Mine -- at the headwaters of Bristol Bay could potentially devastate of one of the world's premier wild salmon fisheries.

Thumbnail image for SamSnyder3.pngThe panel heard from over 90 speakers yesterday.  Native Alaskans, scientists, hunters, conservationists, and concerned citizens united to voice their support for EPA and opposition to Pebble Mine.  “I have no desire to disappear,” said Anna May Ferguson on behalf of the Traditional Council of Togiak.  “With Pebble Mine that is sure to happen.” 

Scientists at the hearing voiced concern, among other things, about the connective hydrology in the region, the economic and sociocultural dependence on salmon, and the certainty of mining failures.

And one of the more colorful speakers said he’d meet the Pebble Limited Partnership with his rifle at the edge of Lake Iliamna and “one of us will go down.” 

Many of the speakers -- like yours truly -- thanked EPA for issuing the draft Watershed Assessment. 

Definitely not thanking EPA were the foreign mining companies behind Pebble Mine.  The lawyers and consultants hired by mining giants Anglo American and Northern Dynasty Minerals paraded their standard litany of complaints (my rebuttal in parenthesis), including:

  • Questioning EPA’s authority (The Clean Water Act clearly authorizes EPA to conduct such assessments, and EPA has done so numerous times in the past); 
  • Arguing EPA ignored its science (Since EPA does cite the science bought and paid for by the Pebble Partnership, one suspects their real complaint is that EPA only sipped, not gulped, the kool-aid);
  • Claiming no definitive mine plan exists (Northern Dynasty Minerals submitted mine plans to the State of Alaska in 2006 and to the Securities and Exchange Commission in 2011); and
  • Touting the marvels of modern engineering (Are they really so arrogant to claim they can build and operate a perfect mine -- forever, even in an earthquake-prone area?);

You can scroll down to see my official testimony (and diplomatic rebuttal).

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The panel – comprised of 12 independent scientists – heard testimony from the public yesterday and debated the scientific merits of the assessment in an open session today.  It will meet tomorrow in a closed session to generate a series of recommendations to EPA.

EPA's study (and intervention) is critically important.  If left to its own devices, the State of Alaska has never said no to a large mine -- which is why native tribes, Alaska residents, commercial fishermen and conservationists are calling on EPA to veto Pebble Mine under Section 404(c) of the Clean Water Act.

Click here to make your voice heard and to Stop Pebble Mine.

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Taryn Kiekow attended the public sessions and presented the following testimony:

Good afternoon.  My name is Taryn Kiekow – I am an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council and have practiced environmental law for more than 10 years.   I’m appearing today on behalf of our 1.3 million members and activists. 

NRDC commends EPA for undertaking this Watershed Assessment.  It is objective, clear and grounded in sound science.

If anything, it actually underestimates risk by excluding important risk factors, such as impacts from:

  • The construction and operation of a deep-water port in Cook Inlet, home to critically endangered beluga whales
  • secondary development, and
  • climate change.

Also, EPA’s maximum mine scenario only estimates 6.5 billion tons of waste; but if fully developed Pebble’s waste would exceed 10 billion tons.

This is unrealistically conservative, and it results in an underestimation of risk.

I have listened today to variations of three basic refrains from the mining companies and their consultants.

I urge you not to be distracted by these red herrings. 

First, Section 104 of the Clean Water Act clearly authorizes EPA to undertake this assessment, and EPA has used this authority numerous times to publish similar reports -- all without challenge.

Second, the assessment does rely on Pebble’s Environmental Baseline Document.  It is disingenuous for Pebble to tie EPA’s hands with delay tactics and then blame EPA.  One suspects that their real complaint is that EPA did not blindly adopt the science funded and controlled by them.

Third, EPA does not need a permit application or definitive mine plan to adequately assess potential impacts.  In fact, Northern Dynasty Minerals did submit plans in 2006 and 2011 that detailed the size, scale, and infrastructure that Pebble Mine would require.  Although the exact details may change, we do know enough to evaluate the impacts. 

Fourth, no amount of modern engineering or mitigation could sufficiently protect Bristol Bay from the inherent risk of mining.  Pebble claims they will engineer a mine that won’t fail. They say a mine that would fail would never be permitted.  Of course not.  No one would intentionally design or permit a mine to fail.  But the reality is that accidents and failures can and do occur.

It’s not worth risking the world’s largest wild salmon fishery.

On behalf of NRDC and its members, we urge you to look closely at the scientific merits of the assessment and not be distracted by red herrings.  And we urge EPA to use this assessment to protect the people and wildlife of Bristol Bay.

Thank you.

Photo credit: Sam Snyder

About the Authors

Taryn Kiekow Heimer

Deputy Director, Marine Mammal Protection Project, Nature Program

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