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EPA will assess development projects in Bristol Bay

February 8th, 2011 | Margaret Bauman Print this article   Email this article  

Officials with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said Feb. 7 that they have begun a scientific assessment of the Bristol Bay watershed to determine how large development projects, such as the Pebble mine, may affect water quality and fisheries.

The study comes in response to concerns voiced by federally recognized tribes and others who petitioned the agency in 2010 to assess any potential risks to the watershed, the EPA officials said.

"The Bristol Bay watershed is essential to the health, environment and economy of Alaska," said Dennis McLerran, EPA regional administrator. "Gathering data and getting public input now, before development occurs, just makes sense. Doing this we can be assured that our future decisions are grounded in the best science and information and in touch with the needs of these communities. We look forward to working with Alaskans to protect and preserve this valuable resource."

Kim Williams, executive director of Nunamta Alukestai, Caretakers of the Land, in Dillingham, called the EPA decision to conduct its own scientific assessment a positive step forward. "We are all trying to protect the salmon, the wildlife, the habitat that the fish, animals and birds rely on," she said. "We feel the science will be there to support Bristol Bay."

Nunamta Alukestai represents eight village corporations which have combined efforts to support the future of Bristol Bay, and oppose development of the Pebble mine, which would sit at the headwaters of the Kvichak and Nushagak rivers. These rivers and their tributaries are the spawning grounds for Bristol Bay's world famous sockeye salmon fishery. Representatives from the eight villages were among those speaking out about their concern about the proposed mine during a meeting with EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson in Dillingham late last year.

Steve Borell, executive director of the Alaska Miners Association, and John Shively, chief executive officer of the Pebble Partnership, both said they were pleased that the EPA chose to do the assessment rather than invoke Section 40? of the Clean Water Act.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said the EPA's decision to withhold judgment on the potential environmental impact of projects, like the Pebble mine, until all the scientific information has been collected and analyzed is a prudent decision.

"I am committed to letting the science decide whether ining is right for the Bristol Bay region, but any attempt to prejudge a project before the environmental work is finished would be a troubling signal, as well as a clear violation of the environmental review process," said Murkowski, the ranking member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee and the Interior Appropriations Subcommittee.

"I will not trade fish for minerals, but I believe that companies willing to invest in our region deserve to e given a fair shake to present their proposals," she said.

Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, also said he was pleased that the EPA did not use its preemptive veto authority in the Clean Water Act in this instance.

Begich said he is hoping for a fully transparent process that invites all sides to the table and involves all affected stakeholders. "Bristol Bay is one of Alaska's most valuable resources and any proposed development within its watershed deserves no less than a rigorous review," he said.

Section 404(c) authorizes EPA to prohibit, restrict, or deny the discharge of dredged or fill material at defined sites in waters of the United States (including wetlands) whenever it determines, after notice and opportunity for public hearing, that use of such sites for disposal would have an unacceptable adverse impact on one or more of various resources, including fisheries, wildlife, municipal water supplies, or recreational areas.

"The important thing is they didn't try to use 40? to block the project, Borell said. "They did not try to shut the project down. The legal requirements for them to shut the project down under 40? have not been met."

Borell said he has not question but that the Pebble mine can be development in an environmentally sound way. The question is whether it is economically viable, he said.

The EPA's scientific assessment will not interfere with the Pebble Partnership's summer plans for continuing environmental assessments, drilling and engineering projects at the site, Shively said. The activity level will be about the same as for the last year or two, with about $25 million to $30 million budgeted for work there, he said.

Last year nine federally recognized Bristol Bay tribes concerned about the potential impact of the proposed Pebble mine petitioned the EPA to use its authority under the Clean Water Act to protect Bristol Bay. Two other tribes asked the EPA to wait for mining projects to submit permit applications before taking action.

The EPA said its decision to conduct a scientific assessment of the Bristol Bay watershed does not represent any regulatory decision by the agency. Instead it represents EPA's proactive steps to better understand the watershed and gather important scientific information, the EPA said.

The EPA's assessment is not limited to examining the effects of hard rock mining projects, but will consider the effects of large scale development in general. The assessment , which will focus primarily on the Nushagak and Kvichak watersheds, will be informed by scientific peer review, tribal consultation, federal and state agency participation, as well as public and industry input.

McLerran said the EPA would accept and consider public input during development of the watershed assessment and would continue to work closely with tribal governments, state and federal agencies as the analysis continues.

Public meetings are planned for stakeholders, both in Anchorage and within the watershed, with dates to be announced later, the EPA said.


Margaret Bauman can be reached at, or by phone at 907-348-2438

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