The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued a final assessment of the environmental impacts of a hypothetical mine in southwest Alaska, claiming mining operations 200 miles upstream from Bristol Bay would pose serious risks to salmon in the bay.
EPA’s initial and final assessments regarding the site are the first time the agency has preemptively moved to discourage a potential mining operation before a mining plan was submitted. EPA’s final report also leaves little doubt the project will remain in limbo at least through the duration of the Obama administration.
Similar in tone and content to a controversial draft assessment EPA released in May 2012, the agency’s final assessment focuses much of its attention on a hypothetical mine’s effects on sockeye salmon in Bristol Bay.
200 Miles Upstream from Bay
The Pebble Partnership requested permission to mine copper, gold, and molybdenum at a site 18 miles from Iliamna, the nearest small village, and 200 miles upstream from Bristol Bay. The 200 miles of streams separating the Iliamna mine site and Bristol Bay are the same distance as the 200 miles of Interstate 95 separating the Washington DC beltway and Staten Island, New York.
World’s Most Valuable Untapped Deposits
The Pebble site contains the most valuable untapped precious metals deposit in the world, including copper and molybdenum, which are used in the production of wind and solar power. The value of the deposit is estimated to be between $300 billion and $500 billion.
The State of Alaska owns the land and would ensure much of the profits remain with the Alaskan people in the form of fees, royalties, and taxes. The federal government would also garner substantial tax revenue from the proposed mining operations. Several federal and state environment protection agencies would jointly ensure mining operations meet strict environmental standards.
Breaking Established Procedures
EPA’s final assessment concludes “large-scale mining in the Bristol Bay watershed poses significant short- and long-term risk to salmon, wildlife and Native Alaskan culture,” EPA regional administrator Dennis McLarren explained in a teleconference with the media. Specifically, EPA says “up to” 94 miles of streams would be destroyed during the construction of the mine, including 5 to 22 miles of streams known to provide salmon spawning and rearing habitat. According to EPA, “up to” 5,350 acres of wetlands, ponds, and lakes could be lost as a result of the mine’s footprint.
Typically, mining companies must go through a multiyear permitting process with an assortment of federal and state agencies before they are allowed to commence operations at a site. In the case of the Pebble Partnership, however, EPA issued its draft report and its final report even though the mine’s developers have yet to submit a formal mining plan. The EPA assessments failed to account for the unprecedented environmental protection measures employed and planned by the Pebble Partnership.
In May 2010, six Native Alaskan tribes petitioned EPA to use its power under Section 404 (c) of the Clean Water Act to block the mine before the Pebble Partnership had submitted a formal development plan or applied for the requisite federal and state permits. EPA’s response to the petition came in February 2011 when the agency announced it would conduct an environmental assessment of the proposed mine site.
Within 15 months, the agency produced a 338-page draft assessment, the Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment. Lacking a formal proposal from the developers and thus bereft of data on which to base its findings, EPA developed what it called a “hypothetical mine scenario.”
Describing its draft report as an “ecological risk assessment,” EPA, in its own words, “developed a set of conceptual models to show potential associations between the endpoints of interest—the salmon industry and salmon populations—and various types of environmental stressors that might reasonably be expected from large-scale mining.” While acknowledging its report “is not an in-depth assessment of a specific mine,” EPA went on to use its hypothetical mine scenario as the basis for both its May 2012 draft assessment and its January 2014 final assessment.
EPA Assessments Flunk Peer Review
A 12-member panel of scientists assembled by EPA to peer-review the agency’s assessments expressed strong concerns with EPA’s procedures and findings regarding the Pebble site. “Unfortunately, because of the hypothetical nature of the approach employed, the uncertainty associated with the assessment,… the utility of the assessment is questionable,” observed Oregon State University environmental science professor William A. Stubblefield in External Peer Review of EPA’s Draft Document: An Assessment of Potential Mining Impacts on Salmon Ecosystems of Bristol Bay, Alaska.
“Some of the assumptions appear to be somewhat inconsistent with mines in Alaska. In particular, the descriptions or effects of stream flows from dewatering and water use do not account for recycling process water, bypassing clean water around the project, or treating and discharging collected water,” observed panelist Phyllis K. Weber Scannell, an environmental consultant and former biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, in the external peer review.
More succinctly, panelist Charles Slaughter, a hydrologist at the University of Idaho, noted in the peer review that sections of the EPA draft report are “pure hogwash.”
Pebble Reacts to Final Assessment
“It must be remembered that the report does not assess the effects of the Pebble Project as we have not finalized nor submitted a project for regulatory evaluation,” the Pebble Partnership explained in a press release. “The report is based upon a so-called ‘hypothetical mine’ of the EPA’s design. The hypothetical mines developed by EPA in their first two drafts did not employ the most advanced engineering and mining practices, as will most certainly be used at Pebble.”
“And it does not consider the critical environmental safeguards and modern mitigation that state and federal permitting will require for Pebble,” the Pebble Partnership observed. “Even then, the EPA has grossly over-estimated the effects of its under-engineered project. [The Pebble Partnership] has spent many years and $600 million dollars on engineering and environmental studies to develop a plan for a 21st century mine.”
Agendas Trumping Science
Because the final report differs little from the 2012 draft report, EPA critics are convinced the agency made up its mind early on and didn’t bother to wait for a formal proposal from the Pebble Partnership.
“First and foremost, natural resource development projects should always be evaluated on science and facts. Nothing more and nothing less,” said Deantha Crockett, executive director of the Alaska Miners Association. “In the assessment, EPA has done an injustice to all development projects by supporting scenarios of poorly designed mines, omitting real-life standards that mines must follow, and then exaggerating the impacts from what is an impossible scenario.
“EPA has also done an injustice to Alaskans who deserve to know the scientific realities of Pebble, realities that will come through a mine plan submitted through the formal NEPA process,” Crockett explained. “It is in this process that we should determine our support for the project based on whether or not it can be done right. This highly flawed report does not give us the information we need to make such an important decision.”
Bolstering Strategic Reserves
According to the Pebble Partnership, the proposed mine could triple U.S. strategic reserves of copper and more than double the nation’s strategic reserves of gold. It could also nearly double U.S. reserves of molybdenum, allowing the nation to rival China in the production of this critical metal used to harden steel used in the U.S. manufacturing and construction industries.
Bonner R. Cohen, Ph. D., ([email protected]) is a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research.
External Peer Review of EPA’s Draft Document: An Assessment of Potential Mining Impacts on Salmon Ecosystems of Bristol Bay, Alaska, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, http://heartland.org/sites/default/files/pebble_mine_epa_peer_review.pdf