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September 09, 2013
Assessing the Pebble Mine assessment

In a hearing of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, the approach the EPA used in writing its second draft environmental assessment of the impact of the proposed Pebble Mine on the Bristol Bay watershed (BBWA) was critiqued by three witnesses and defended by a former Agency regional administrator. 

Companies comprising the Pebble Partnership have been planning for years to apply to the EPA for a Clean Water Act (CWA) permit to mine one of the largest finds of copper, gold, and molybdenum in the nation.  But in 2010, Native American tribes in Alaska, as well as environmental groups, petitioned the Agency to assess the potential impact of such a mine on the largest sockeye salmon fishery in the world that is also one of the last unspoiled habitats in the world. 

EPA’s mining scenarios

The EPA issued its BBWA first draft  in May 2012.  Following receipt of written comments from 12 peer reviewers selected by the Agency, a second draft was issued in April 2013.  The draft is based on hypothetical mining scenarios the Agency says it built on detailed plans put forward by the Pebble Partnership.  Under those scenarios, the impact will be “severe and unacceptable,” according to Wayne Nastri, who headed EPA’s Region 9 office during the two G.W. Bush terms.   

“Although a draft, the BBWA makes it clear that the location and type of ore associated with the Pebble deposit and the massive size necessary to economically mine it inevitably means that mining the deposit will result in severe and unacceptable adverse impacts to the salmon fishery, and in consequence, to the Eskimo, Indian, and Aleut peoples who live in the area and rely on a subsistence lifestyle,” testified Nastri at the hearing.

EIS needed

But the other witnesses at the hearing were concerned that the EPA is jumping to conclusions before it even receives a CWA permit application that would detail the entirety of the Pebble Partnership’s plans.  For example, one witness made the point that an environmental assessment is too limited a review for a project of such magnitude, which should in addition be subject to a far more comprehensive environmental impact statement (EIS), as required by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). 

“The resource impacts analyzed in EPA’s Bristol Bay Assessment are of limited value to any eventual EIS,” testified Lowell Rothschild, an attorney with Bracewell & Giuliani LLP.  “How limited will depend on the specifics of the permit application and how much the avoidance, minimization, and mitigation measures it contains differ from EPA’s hypothetical scenarios.”

The view was shared by Dr. Michael Kavanaugh, a senior principal with Geosyntec, an engineering firm that assessed the BBWA for the Pebble Partnership.  According to Kavanaugh:

“The risk analysis presented for the hypothetical mine scenarios by the USEPA is fundamentally flawed because: a) it is not based on data applicable to a mining scenario that would be permitted, b) it does not incorporate appropriate estimates of the low probabilities of failure for selected mine components, and c) it does not account for modern mining design and permitted operations strategies that would reduce both the probability and consequences of the low probability failure events hypothesized.”

Depriving U.S. of critical metals

The fourth witness, Daniel McGroarty of the American Resources Policy Network, hammered home the same point.

“The very act of EPA conducting the [BBWA] prior to Pebble submitting a mine plan or seeking a single permit creates a chilling effect on investment in U.S. resource extraction,” testified McGroarty. “The likelihood that mine opponents are gearing up to use the [BBWA] as a reason to trigger a preemptive permit denial before NEPA even begins could deprive the U.S. of reliable sources of critical metals, responsibly extracted under American regulations.”

The EPA says its goal is to finalize the BBWA in 2013 after reviewing additional public comments, consulting and coordinating with tribes, and considering input from the expert peer reviewers.

Click here for the testimony on the BBWA.

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