EPA's BBWA Inadequate and Inaccurate

Calling the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) draft Bristol Bay watershed assessment inadequate, rushed and inaccurate, the Pebble Partnership Monday submitted comments and technical data to the EPA charging that the draft assessment is incomplete and fails on a scientific and a regulatory basis. Materials submitted by PLP, which include opinions and expertise from engineers, mining experts and international technical and environmental consulting firms, underscore the fundamental gaps in the process and omission of critical practices associated with 21st Century mining. Perhaps the most glaring issue is the hypothetical mine the EPA created on which to base its assessment – a mine that could not be permitted in the United States according to today’s rigorous regulatory standards.

Although the assessment itself does not contain any recommendations as to whether the EPA should exercise its veto authority under Section 404c of the Clean Water Act (CWA) to prevent PLP from taking a project into the federal permitting process, EPA has indicted that the study could be the basis for such a determination. Such an action would apply to a 20,000 square-mile area and could ultimately affect developments in addition to large scale mining.

“As a company, we firmly believe that such a determination would need to be based on the same scientific rigor and the same high standards for independent scientific research as the federal agencies would use to grant a mine the various permits required by law,” says John Shively, CEO of the Pebble Partnership. 
“This assessment does not meet those standards or come anywhere close to doing so. If a developer attempted to apply for federal permits using a document as flawed as this assessment, the applications would be promptly and justifiably rejected.”

In addition to bypassing many of the agency’s own internal guidelines, the assessment fails to include, consider or evaluate modern extraction technologies, mitigation plans or reclamation. The assessment also contains an excessively high number of missing peer-reviewed citations, a lack of available data sources, unfounded claims and numerous presumptions by the authors that are not based on factual information or scientific analysis. Given the lack of scientific rigor, the assessment is an inadequate basis for a permitting decision for the Pebble Project, which should be evaluated pursuant to the normal Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) process under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

“There appears to be a lack of understanding on the part of the EPA as to how modern mines operate, along with a disregard for innovations and technologies being deployed at contemporary facilities,” says Shively.

Other significant deficiencies within the draft assessment include false assumptions related to ground and surface water, roads, and mine design; theoretical scenarios related to disturbance of aquatic habitat; and an absence of material examining current mining techniques related to fishery resources currently being deployed along water systems such as the Fraser River in Canada, and in Alaska’s backyard at Red Dog Mine, Ft. Knox Mine and Greens Creek Mine. The assessment also contains no review or evaluation of best available mining practices related to modern containment or impoundment structures, nor current proven methods for pollution control, water treatment, monitoring or habitat modification.

Essentially a literature review completed in approximately one year, the EPA draft assessment covers a 20,000 square-mile area, roughly the size of the state of West Virginia, in remote southwest Alaska and contains no new in-the-field scientific research. By comparison, PLP has spent eight years studying the local environment and a dedicated area of approximately 1,500 square miles in and around the proposed mine site.

In January, PLP released its Environmental Baseline Document (EBD) prepared by independent researches, a five-year comprehensive characterization of the biological, physical and socioeconomic aspects of the region. The EBD, which represents one of the most extensive scientific programs ever conducted for a natural resource project in Alaska, was provided to the EPA in December 2011 as part of the pre-assessment process, but has largely been disregarded. The Pebble Partnership has re-submitted the EBD as part of its EPA draft assessment comments.

The EPA draft assessment focuses solely on two of nine major river systems in the area, implying these are wholly representative of the entire region. Statements within the document of potential failures are inflammatory and assume no immediate remediation – an unlikely and unrealistic outcome. Further, case studies of tailings failure, as one example, are not comparable to regulatory requirements nor construction techniques that would be expected for potential development at Pebble.

“EPA has a legitimate regulatory role in the established process,” added Shively. “There is an appropriate time and place for their input as part of the NEPA process, which is triggered once an actual mining plan is submitted. Remarkably, the EPA appears to be laying the groundwork for a very different outcome, one in which EPA shuts down the process entirely and preemptively prevents Pebble from even seeking a permit under the law.”

The EPA provided a short, 60-day public review window for the draft assessment, which culminated during the height of the summer fishing season in Alaska. The EPA has ignored extension requests from the state of Alaska, Senator Murkowski and Representative Don Young, wide-spread Alaska business and trade associations, Tribal governments, Village Corporations, 10 of the 12 Regional Corporations – including Arctic Slope Regional Corporation, CIRI, Bering Straits Native Corporation, Doyon, Aleut Corporation, Ahtna, Sealaska, Koniag, Chugach Alaska Corporation and Calista, hundreds of Alaska residents and local people of southwest Alaska who wish to have more time to fully review the draft assessment and provide meaningful dialogue. This is noteworthy because the EPA has provided no justification for why it is rushing this process, especially with no permitting package or mine plan to evaluate.

According to the US Census, southwest Alaska is one of the most economically depressed areas in the nation. If approved by regulators, the Pebble project would inject billions of dollars of investment into the local economy, create roughly 2,000 construction jobs and support permanent positions for about 1,000 workers. The insensitivity to the region’s struggles and deliberate snub by a government agency to some of those closest to the proposed Pebble Deposit who have the most potential to gain from jobs and a much-needed diversified economy calls into question the EPA’s understanding of rural Alaska.

“Unfortunately, there seems to be a flawed process unfolding that disregards the challenges faced in southwest Alaska of high unemployment, high cost of living, high suicide rates and continuing rural outmigration. Providing new economic opportunities could be part of the solution to many of these problems. Again, one has to wonder, why the rush?”

All documents and comments submitted by PLP to the EPA regarding the draft Bristol Bay watershed assessment are available at www.pebblepartnership.com.