By Dustin Hurst | Watchdog.org
IDAHO FALLS, Idaho – The Bristol Bay region is southwestern Alaska’s own piece of heaven on earth. Pure water makes for world-class fishing that provides about half the salmon Americans consume — as well as food for a handful of native tribes. Bird-watchers flock to the area hoping to catch a glimpse of some of more than 190 bird species populating the area.
It’s the stuff of National Geographic.
So, a cursory glance at the proposed Pebble Mine might suggest a classic showdown between a mine developer and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
But the real fight is between the EPA and a foe more formidable than any miner: science itself.
Backers of the mining project, Pebble Limited Partnership, haven’t completed their own detailed plan for the operation. So, in an unusual break with protocol, the EPA created its own hypothetical plan for Pebble Mine, a blueprint it then used to conclude the project might be too dangerous to approve.
PLP, a 50-50 joint venture of Anglo American and Northern Dynasty Minerals, wants to construct a massive open pit mine in the middle of the Bristol Bay watershed. The reason: PLP believes buried just below the surface is one of the world’s largest copper, gold and molybdenum reserves.
Some of the world’s most important devices – cell phones, computers and iPads, for instance – require the precious metals PLP hopes to extract from the Alaskan soil. Ironically, much green technology — electric cars, solar panels, and wind turbines — also require an abundance of copper.
So the global hunt for copper is critical to the new economy, and that explains why PLP has spent more than $500 million and several years exploring the remote Bristol Bay, preparing environmental reports and designing the mega-mine.
That’s all they’ve done, though; the plan remains in draft form. When that plan is final, sometime later this year, PLP officials hope to apply for the requisite permits, more than 50 in all.
The trouble began in 2010 when six federally recognized Alaskan tribes asked the EPA to use special powers granted to the agency under the Clean Water Act to kill the mine – even before PLP submits its plan for review. In response, EPA officials in February 2011 launched a large-scale assessment of the mine’s potential impact on Bristol Bay ecosystems.
Lacking a real plan to study, the EPA built its own Pebble Mine model. Critics charge the agency used outdated data.
The damning report, released in May 2012, said the EPA’s mock mine, operating at the highest standards with limited functional failures, would block or eliminate up to 87 miles of streams, obliterate as many as 4,000 acres of wetland, and considerably diminish spawning habitats.
National Resources Defense Council Western Coordinator Joel Reynolds has repeatedly applauded the study, and reaffirmed his commitment to kill Pebble. “Bristol Bay is no place for large-scale mining, and the Pebble Mine will eventually be stopped,” he wrote. “It’s only a matter of time.”
But others derided the EPA report, calling its methodology flawed and its purpose questionable.
Bob Loeffler, a visiting professor at the University of Alaska and veteran of the large-mine permitting, counts himself among the report’s critics. He told Watchdog.org that the EPA’s first-of-its-kind assessment “predicts impacts from a ‘hypothetical’ mine that cannot meet permit standards, and lacks methods to control problems or mitigate them. Impacts from such a design are just not accurate.”
Can any mine operate safely in Bristol Bay? Loeffer is scientifically agnostic. “I don’t know,” he said. “I really cannot know until they come up with a mine design.”
PLP spokesman Mike Heatwole echoed those charges, criticizing the EPA for omitting key data in the report. Most important: Heatwole said the operation, as PLP envisions it, would safely impound mine waste, known as tailings, to keep potentially toxic sludge out of Alaska’s pristine waters.
“There’s absolutely zero discussion of that,” he said Tuesday.
After the report’s release, the EPA gathered 12 respected scholars to review the document. They provided largely negative feedback.
“There is no detailed discussion of engineering practices,” wrote Steve Buckley, a geomorphologist with the Montana-based Watershed Consulting. “There is insufficient discussion of any potential mitigation measures and there is a lack of any detailed research into applicable engineering and mitigation methods.”
“Unfortunately, because of the hypothetical nature of the approach employed, the uncertainty with the assessment … the utility of the assessment, is questionable,” criticized William Stubblefield, a professor in the department of molecular and environmental toxicology at Oregon State University.
Meanwhile, the EPA has said it will go back to the drawing board, revising the initial assessment to add clarity and better define the purpose of the document.
Loeffer isn’t so sure any revisions – even drastic changes – can save the EPA document.
“Short of starting over, there’s not much they can do,” he said. “You cannot fix an analysis that uses a failed methodology.”
Bonner Cohen, a decidedly pro-Pebble researcher working for the National Center for Public Policy Research in Washington, D.C., agrees that a hypothetical model won’t deliver the scientific goods.
“The problem with this kind of approach is that a proposed Pebble Mine is a ‘specific mine,’ one with its own unique characteristics, which in no way lend themselves to a ‘hypothetical mine scenario’ developed from ‘conceptual models,” he wrote in January.
The agency doesn’t have an official timeline for the revised version’s release, only that the agency hopes to finish it this year. What happens then is anyone’s guess. The EPA website explains that the agency hasn’t yet decided what course of action it will take on the mine, but leaves open the door to the pre-emptive veto PLP fears.
Contact: [email protected] or @DustinHurst via Twitter.