EPA Offers Negative Assessment of Potential Mining on Bristol Bay Watershed

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on January 15, released An Assessment of Potential Mining Impacts on Salmon Ecosystems of Bristol Bay, Alaska, a 630-page document that has mostly negative implications for Northern Dynasty Minerals’ Pebble copper-goldmolybdenum project in the region. Bristol Bay supports the largest sockeye salmon fishery in the world, producing nearly 50% of the world’s wild sockeye salmon with runs averaging 37.5 million fish each year. The EPA assessment concludes that largescale mining on the Bristol Bay watershed poses numerous risks to the salmon and to Alaska Native cultures.

Northern Dynasty Minerals' Pebble project, situated in rolling tundra approximately 1,000 ft above sea-level, 65 miles from tidewater on Cook Inlet in southwest Alaska, has come
under increased scrutiny after a recent EPA assessment concludes that large-scale mining in this watershed area poses risks to the area's important salmon population and to
the lifestyle of native Alaskans in the region. The Pebble Ltd. Partnership had approved a budget of approximately $80 million in 2013 to advance the project with the goal of
initiating permitting under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) before the end of the year. (All photos courtesy of Northern Dynasty Minerals)

Responding to the release of the EPA assessment, Northern Dynasty issued a statement noting that EPA released drafts of the assessment in May 2012 and April 2013 to widespread criticism about the report’s flawed methodology and findings, including from the state of Alaska, Alaska Native groups and expert peer reviewers commissioned by the EPA. “Throughout the process of completing the assessment, EPA has repeatedly failed to meet its own guidelines and policies for watershed assessments, risk assessment and peer review, and violated the U.S. Information Quality Act,” the Northern Dynasty statement said.

“Publication of the final watershed assessment is really the final chapter in a very sad story,” Northern Dynasty President and CEO Ron Thiessen said. “We believe the EPA set out to do a flawed analysis of the Pebble project, and they certainly succeeded with both their first and second drafts. We have every expectation that the final report released today is more of the same.”

The study does not recommend policy or regulatory decisions. EPA suggested that it will serve as a technical resource for the public and for federal, state, and tribal governments as they consider how best to address the challenges posed by mining and ecological protection in the Bristol Bay watershed. “It will inform ongoing discussions of the risks of mine development to the sustainability of the Bristol Bay salmon fisheries and thus will be of value to the many stakeholders in this debate,” the report’s executive summary stated.

“The assessment also will inform the consideration of options for future government action, including, possibly, by the EPA, which has been petitioned by multiple groups to address mining activity in the Bristol Bay watershed using its authority under the Clean Water Act. Should specific mine projects reach the permitting stage, the assessment will enable state and federal permitting authorities to make informed decisions to grant, deny, or condition permits and/or conduct additional research or assessment as a basis for such decisions.”

Critics called the EPA assessment a “pre-emptive veto” of the Pebble project, and U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, warned that it “sets a terrible precedent for development in our state and across the nation.” On the other side of the issue, U.S. Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, spoke in support of the assessment, calling the Pebble project “the wrong mine in the wrong place.”

Northern Dynasty’s Thiessen said the assessment will not change his company’s plans for the Pebble project. “We look forward to defining a proposed development plan for Pebble and to having it reviewed by federal and state regulatory agencies under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) in the months and years ahead,” Thiessen said. “We have every expectation that the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) process required by NEPA, to be administered by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, will ultimately provide a much more rigorous, fair and transparent review of the science surrounding this important project.”

The Pebble project is on state land designated for mineral exploration and development. It is situated in a region of rolling tundra approximately 1,000 ft above sea-level, 65 miles from tidewater on Cook Inlet, and presents favorable conditions for successful mine site and infrastructure development.

The EPA assessment and executive summary are available for downloading at http://www2.epa.gov/bristolbay.

As featured in Womp 2014 Vol 02 - www.womp-int.com