Scientists call for more data on Pebble proposal
November 24th, 2012 | Carey Restino
The Peer Review Report of the EPA's Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment was released two weeks ago, offering an unusual chance to read what objective scientists think about the potential biological impacts of a large mine in the region.
The peer review was set up to critically examine the results of a process started in 2011 at the request of various stakeholders in the Bristol Bay region including fishing and Native groups concerned about the proposed Pebble Mine near Lake Iliamna. Proponents to the EPA's actions have touted it as forward-thinking and essential, while opponents say the EPA is overstepping its bounds and taking premature action since there is no mine plan yet and the Pebble Partnership hasn't filed any permit requests to date.
This week, the Bristol Bay Times-Dutch Harbor Fisherman will look at some of the responses by scientists to the first five of 14 questions posed to this group, which span everything from how the EPA characterized the area, to what scientists thought about the fact that the EPA developed a hypothetical mine scenario to build for its risk assessment.
1) The EPA's assessment focused on identifying the impacts of potential future large-scale mining to the fish habitat and populations in these watersheds. The assessment brought together information to characterize the ecological, geological, and cultural resources of the Nushagak and Kvichak watersheds. Did this characterization provide appropriate background information for the assessment? Was this characterization accurate? Were any significant literature, reports, or data missed that would be useful to complete this characterization, and if so what are they?
University of Alaska Fairbanks professor Courtney Carotney, who teaches at the School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences and has studied the social, cultural and economic diversity of fishing communities, said while the background information on the rivers appears to be appropriate and accurate, there needs to be more recognition of the missing information throughout the report, such as quantitative data on salmon populations in the region, their spawning and rearing areas, and local stream features.
Others called for a more comprehensive analysis of factors of the hypothetical mine project, including electrical generation and transmission, a deep-water port, and other secondary infrastructure.
"A truly comprehensive analysis should incorporate a full analysis of these aspects," said Charles Wesley Slaughter, an adjunct professor of Natural Resources and Engineering with the Center for Eco-Hydraulics Research at the University of Idaho in Boise.
Another scientist noted a lack of information about soil erosion in the EPA's draft watershed assessment.
"Site disturbance will be significant, yet there is no discussion of soil erosion," noted John Stednick, a professor and program leader of the Watershed Science Program in the Department of Forest and Rangeland Stewardship at Colorado State University.
Roy Stein, a professor emeritus at The Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio, commented that the reports characterization of the area was lacking in that it didn't take global climate change factors into consideration. He expressed concern that if there was not adequate documentation of such factors in advance of their occurrence, "all negative impacts of the mine on salmonids, etc., could be attributed to Global Climate Change rather than the true culprit, which would be the mining activity."
"Given our current understanding, general changes likely include more intense precipitation events and increased temperature," Stein wrote. "With more intense storms come a greater likelihood of a failure of Tailings Storage Facilities, more acidity from pre-tertiary waste rock... and greater sediment influx into streams."
2) A formal mine plan or application is not available for the porphyry copper deposits in the Bristol Bay watershed. EPA developed a hypothetical mine scenario for its risk assessment, based largely on a plan published by Northern Dynasty Minerals. Given the type and location of copper deposits in the watershed, was this hypothetical mine scenario realistic and sufficient for the assessment? Has EPA appropriately bounded the magnitude of potential mine activities with the minimum and maximum mine sizes used in the scenario? Are there significant literature, reports, or data not referenced that would be useful to refine the mine scenario, and if so what are they?
One of the more contentious parts of the EPA's watershed assessment includes its use of a hypothetical mine plan. While some scientists said they considered the hypothetical mine fundamentally legitimate, others, including Dirk van Zyl, a British Columbia scientists whose experience lies in the mining field, had considerable comments on the document's use of the hypothetical mine.
Van Zyl, professor and chair of Mining and the Environment at the Norman B. Keevil Institute of Mining Engineering at University of British Columbia, said more information about the range of potential outcomes based on a wide variety of options for mine development is necessary. For evaluating the impact on salmon, for example, van Zyl noted that adjustments in details such as where facilities are located could result in impacts that are quite different from those explained in the report.
"I therefore consider the mine scenario not sufficient for the assessment," he concluded.
Van Zyl also brings up the issue of the EPA's choice to use "good" mining practice standards as opposed to "best" practices.
"It can only be concluded that 'best' will be better than 'good'," he wrote. "On the basis of this, it is inconceivable to me that the Bristol Bay communities, the Alaska regulatory authorities as well as Federal Regulatory Authorities will not demand that the company follow "best mining practices", however that is defined at the time. It is also inconceivable to me that the company will not follow "best mining practices" in the design and development of such a mine."
3) EPA assumed two potential modes for mining operations: a no-failure mode of operation and a mode involving one or more types of failures. Is the no-failure mode of operation adequately described? Are engineering and mitigation practices sufficiently detailed, reasonable, and consistent? Are significant literature, reports, or data not referenced that would be useful to refine these scenarios, and if so what are they?
Several scientists commented on the unlikely assumption of a no-failure mode described in the assessment.
"Based on the actual history of other major resource extraction projects in Alaska and throughout the world, a 'no failure' assumption seems unrealistic," Slaughter noted. "Rather, the assumption should be that there will be failures, of varying modes and magnitudes, over the life of the project."
Others questioned the sections in the report discussing the post closure site management.
Phyllis Weber Scannell, an environmental consultant and previous senior biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, asked if a mine in this area could be designed for closure.
"Is it acceptable to develop and operate a mine that will require essentially perpetual treatment," Weber Scannell asked. "It is my belief that these are the essential questions that should be addressed during any mine permitting process."
Paul Whitney, an independent consultant, said most mine permit applications he has worked on include both mitigation to minimize environmental impact and mitigation to compensate for environmental impact. Whitney said this plan offers no compensatory mitigation and wondered if such a plan is even possible in the watersheds.
4) Are the potential risks to salmonid fish due to habitat loss and modification and changes in hydrology and water quality appropriately characterized and described for the no-failure mode of operation? Does the assessment appropriately describe the scale and extent of risks to salmonid fish due to operation of a transportation corridor under the no-failure mode of operation?
Several scientists commented on a need for more information defining potential risks to fish if a mine was developed and no failures occurred. David Atkins, principal hydrologist and owner of Watershed Environmental, as well as others, said he had concerns about the lack of analysis of the impact of a transportation corridor that is estimated to go over 30 streams.
"The report further states that the corridor could affect 270 km of streams below the corridor and 240 km of streams above, but that there is no way to assess the magnitude," Atkins wrote. "Therefore, the impacts of the corridor on fish populations are unknown, and this impact is not described in a way that can allow a reviewer to draw any conclusion."
Others complimented the analysis, calling it sound and logical.
Others asked questions about factors such as where the water for dust control on the road would come from.
"Dust control for the 86-mile proposed haul road will likely require a lot of water," wrote Whitney. "Where will this water come from? Withdrawal from streams crossed by the haul road could have impingement and flow reduction consequences. Adequate screening could solve the impingement issue. Some back-of-the-envelope calculations could determine if water withdrawals for dust control could alter the projected hydrographs when salmonids are present in the streams."
5) Do the failures outlined in the assessment reasonably represent potential system failures that could occur at a mine of the type and size outlined in the mine scenario? Is there a significant type of failure that is not described? Are the probabilities and risks of failures estimated appropriately? Is appropriate information from existing mines used to identify and estimate types and specific failure risks? If not, which existing mines might be relevant for estimating potential mining activities in the Bristol Bay watershed?
Several scientists questioned the report's focus on a catastrophic failure versus what they deemed as more likely — smaller accidents of varying degrees and consequence.
"It would be helpful to describe some smaller-scale failures that have occurred at the mine sites," Atkins said.
One scientist, though noting his lack of expertise in the area, expressed frustration at the argument presented by mine developers that history is not a good predictor of future results because the improvements in technology have reduced risks of failure significantly.
"In my view, this is a specious argument and one that should be roundly put to bed by the authors of this report," wrote Stein. "History is indeed the absolute best predictor of the future and technological changes that have occurred since past mines must be absolutely and critically evaluated to determine if indeed risks do go down. This is a serious issue and one that should be addressed with some rigor by the authors."
This is the second in a four-part series looking at the peer review report of the EPA's Draft Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment. Next week, the scientists' responses to the assessments characterization of risks to fish from various potential failures ranging from culvert failures to a failure of the tailings dam will be presented. In addition, scientists will comment on one of the factors in the report that has drawn the most public testimony — the risks to human cultures due to risks to fish.