EPA hearing talks science
August 10th, 2012 | Carey Restino
While Tuesday's hearing of a peer review committee was supposed to focus primarily on the scientific analysis of the Environmental Protection Agency's Draft Assessment of the Bristol Bay Watershed, it contained plenty of the heated commentary that continues to boil over the possibility of a large-scale mine in the headwaters of Bristol Bay's rivers and streams.
The hearing, which started in Anchorage on Tuesday and was to continue through Thursday, was intended to help a 12-member independent panel of hydrologists, fish biologists, geologists, wildlife experts and other scientists answer some key questions posed to them regarding the draft assessment. The study concluded that a large-scale mine would negatively impact the fisheries of the region, even given a best-case scenario where no major environmental disaster occurs. Though the EPA does not cite a specific mine in its assessment, the Pebble Partnership's exploration of a large-scale copper, gold and molybdenum deposit that lies near Iliamna Lake is front and center in the debate.
Speakers were selected by their interest in speaking on several topics pertinent to the questions raised, with more than 100 registering to speak in a 3-minute window that many found difficult to comply with. Speakers came from across the Bristol Bay region, but industries were also well represented, as was the scientific community, both independent and those who work for various mining interests in the region.
Many of the speakers brought forth now-familiar messages. From those opposing the EPA's action, speakers questioned the federal agency's right to take action in the region, asked why the agency was acting prior to any applications being filed by the Pebble Prospect planners. People took exception with the speed of the EPA's action, and timing that put the hearings right in the middle of the busy summer season. And at least one speaker claimed the only motivation he could think of for the EPA to take such rapid action was a political one — an attempt to stop the mine quickly even if the current president isn't re-elected.
Several speakers spoke about their fears that the EPA's action pertaining to the watershed could have long-reaching implications for future development projects, from roads to airports. Others noted that the economy of the area is painfully lacking in jobs, and without an investment like that proposed by the Pebble Partnership, many villages would vanish altogether.
Sara McCarr of Togiak spoke tearfully about her gratitude for the job as a community associate with the Pebble Partnership, noting that it was a godsend when she had to come home after college, but she sees others in her village struggling, youth doing drugs, drinking.
"It's really hard to live there without any jobs," McCarr said, fighting back tears while she spoke. "I'm really happy to have a job. This is the best job I've ever had."
Speakers in favor of the EPA's action, however, countered that the EPA's action is desperately needed to stop the destruction of a vital fishery, not just for the economy of the region but also for the many subsistence users, who depend on the fish not only for food but also through a rich cultural heritage linked to the resource.
"As an Alaska Native person, I have no desire to disappear," said Anna Mae Ferguson of Togiak. "Subsistence is more than economics. In addition to supplying food and other necessities, it provides people with productive labor, personal self esteem and strong family relationships, and a cultural foundation that cannot be replaced or duplicated by any other management."
Scientists weigh in
Amid the passionate pleas for and against the EPA's assessment, scientists from all across the state turned up at Tuesday's hearing to share their thoughts about the science behind the draft. Many applauded the findings, while adding specific recommendations to the panel.
Sue Mauger, science director for Cook InletKeeper, told the panel that it should consider the potential impacts of climate change on the current conditions, citing a 2011 study of the Chuitna Watershed that predicted significant changes in hydrology by the end of the century.
"It is my opinion that the EPA's assessment appropriately characterizes current conditions at the Nushagak and Kvichak watersheds yet likely underestimates the potential risks of mining activity at the scale of the Pebble Deposit on the hydrological conductivity and salmon habitat quality and availability in this time of rapid climate change," Mauger said.
Others noted that within each stage of salmon development, there are points where the emerging fish are extremely fragile, and more attention needed to be paid to each individual stage.
Other scientists, however, blasted the EPA's draft assessment as having no independent science, and for not looking at the extensive data collected by the Pebble Partnership, released this winter.
Longtime residents also added their observations, noting that even without a long title in front of their name, they understood the needs and risks faced by the salmon on which they depend.
One speaker noted that when the water in the rivers was too high, the bears are starving. At the same time, they know that when the water is high like that, the eggs wash away. Others testified that changes are already occurring to the rivers in the region because of climate change, making the resource more fragile than ever.
Among the comments of those opposed to the EPA's assessment, perhaps the loudest is that the study is rushed. EPA officials, however, responded to that criticism Tuesday.
"We think those statements — that this is rushed and flawed — are just inaccurate," EPA Region 10 Administrator Dennis McLerran told reporters during a mid-morning break, defending the agency's work. "We have had a very rigorous process and a lengthy process."
Most — 90 percent — of the 220,000 comments that have come in support the EPA's work on the watershed assessment, he said. And he defended the hypothetical mine scenario used in the study, saying it was developed using "real modern mining practices," including information gleaned from the Pebble Partnership's own data and other mining companies, like Northern Dynasty.
"We are really trying to get the science about what makes this watershed tick right," McLerran said.
The independent scientific panel will spend Wednesday talking among itself about whether there are gaps in the EPA study. A third day of private consultation with the EPA will take place, and then the individual members of the panel will return to their homes across the country, and author their own opinions. A summary of their findings will be made public sometime this fall. Whatever they come up with will be advisory only. As with the public comments that came in this summer, the EPA will have access to the panel's analysis but is not obligated to incorporate their findings into its final report?
The Alaska Dispatch contributed to this story.
Carey Restino can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.