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Pebble peer review comments welcomed

November 18th, 2012 | Carey Restino Print this article   Email this article  

Both sides in the contentious debate over the proposed Pebble Mine are claiming a victory of sorts after the release of comments by scientists who reviewed the draft of the Bristol Bay watershed assessment.

The Environmental Protection Agency released the peer review panel's comments last week, which include more than 100 pages of analysis of the controversial watershed assessment by 12 independent scientists. Comments ranged from concern that the purpose of the document was unclear to assertions that the watershed assessment underestimated the potential impacts of a mine.

The first assertion, which can be found in the comments of several of the peer review scientists, hinges on the fact that the EPA launched its watershed assessment of the area prior to any mine permit application. As a result, there is no actual mine plan on which to base the assessment. A hypothetical mining scenario, based on a mine plan presented to investors in the proposed Pebble prospect, was used in part.

"Although interesting, the potential reality of the assessment is somewhat questionable," wrote William Stubblefield with Oregon State University. "It is also unclear why the EPA undertook this evaluation, given that a more realistic assessment could probably have been conducted once an actual mine was proposed and greater detail about operational parameters available."

That sentiment has been echoed by the Pebble Partnership, which has said it plans to begin the permitting process as early as this fall for the gold, copper and molybdenum mine proposed in the headwaters of one of the world's largest salmon fisheries.

"This watershed review has been really premature from the get-go," said Mike Heartwole, Pebble Partnership spokesman. "What we don't have is a completed final mine design to inform the regulatory process."

Several peer reviewers also said the purpose of the report was unclear, making it difficult to assess. The EPA has previously stated that the watershed assessment was not a regulatory document.

Gordon Reeves with the USDA Pacific Northwest Research Station, said it was unclear if the watershed assessment was intended to be "a case study of the potential impacts of a hypothetical mine under the various scenarios presented or whether the intent was to develop a framework for assessing mine scenarios."

"These are two very different objectives, which makes it critical that the purpose be clearly stated in the beginning of the document so that reviewers and others understand the purpose of the document," Reeves wrote in the report.

Opponents of the mine, however, said that the scientists reviewing the Watershed Assessment substantiated their concerns about the proposed mine, concerns that inspired the request for the EPA to get involved last year.

The Bristol Bay Native Corporation said in a release that the peer review comments demonstrate that "the agency remains on track to engaging in a fair, thorough review of the science in its efforts to protect the Bristol Bay region."

Among the comments highlighted by those opposed to the mine were those summarizing the potential impacts to the area.

"There is no question that a mine, especially of the type and magnitude analyzed in the Assessment, could have significant impacts and that if these impacts are not or cannot be properly managed and/or mitigated, the consequences could be profound," wrote David Atkins of Watershed Environmental, LLC.

Those who have been leading the charge in opposition to the mine welcome such sentiments.

"The scientists on this panel conducted a thorough review of the science behind the watershed assessment, and we hope these findings will be incorporated into the final assessment," said Jason Metrokin, president and CEO of Bristol Bay Native Corporation in a release. "If used responsibly, this information will better protect the resources and the people of the Bristol Bay region."

The EPA, which did not return requests for comment for this story, has said it will incorporate the peer review comments into its final watershed assessment document. Given that some of the recommendations are to clarify the intent of the document, as well as significantly modify the analysis, it is unclear to what extent the EPA plans to revise the document, if at all. In other news reports, the EPA has stated that no timeframe has been laid out for the release of the final report.

Heartwole said the Pebble Partnership hopes that if the intent of the assessment is to make any type of public policy decision, a lot more work is put into it.

Next week, the Bristol Bay Times will look more closely at the peer review comments to the 14 questions posed by the EPA.


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