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EPA chief: Pebble Mine decision to be based on science, not popularity

By M.D. Kittle |

Posted 9/12/2013

MADISON – The Environmental Protection Agency’s new administrator last week assured residents of an Alaska town that’s ground zero in the battle over a mine of precious metals that the agency won’t let public pressure sway its decision.

Lisa Reimers, CEO of the Iliamna Development Corp., said new EPA director Gina McCarthy’s “fact-finding” visit to Iliamna was a good sign. The last EPA director, according to several community members, made no attempt to visit the proposed mine site or the people who call the remote country around Illiamna Lake home.

Reimers tells the on-site visit left her with mixed feelings.

“I felt really good about (McCarthy) meeting with us, but at the end of the day I was so exhausted and still unsure of what could happen,” she said.

McCarthy  met with community members in Dillinghama hub city in the Bristol Bay region located about 135 air miles from Iliamna, and toured the site of the proposed large-scale copper and gold mine before holding private and public meetings with residents of Newhalen and Iliamna.

Reimers said McCarthy assured the people of Iliamna, a community of about 120 residents located some 180 air miles southwest of Anchorage, that the EPA’s decision on whether to invoke a seldom-used but potent provision in the Clean Water Act would not be a “popularity contest,” and that the entire process will be “based on science.”

There’s the rub for mine supporters and those opposed to what they see as an EPA power grab that could stifle development of the mine and, perhaps, development elsewhere.

If the decision is based on EPA science, a lot of people fear the multi-billion dollar mine – and the thousands of jobs it promises – will be done for.

Weird science?

The Pebble Limited Partnership, a development initiative of London-based Anglo American and British Columbia’s Northern Dynasty Minerals, has spent years and tens of millions of dollars studying the potential of unearthing what is estimated to be some $500 billion in copper, gold and molybdenum. The site is said to be one of the largest copper and gold deposit discoveries in the world.

But PLP has yet to submit a full plan for EPA review and it may not get the chance.

The EPA has the power to invoke 404(c) of the Clean Water Act, which could pre-emptively kill the mine project before a plan moves to the regulator’s table.

Many Iliamna resident, and more outside the region, are asking the EPA to veto the project. They fear a large-scale mine would ruin the Bristol Bay Watershed, which feeds 50 percent of the world’s sockeye salmon population, critical to the region’s economy.

In February 2011, the agency opted to perform a Bristol Bay Watershed Assessmentthat predicted massive damage but was criticized by many for faulty, hypothetical science.

Veteran engineer Dirk van Zyl said the assessment’s dependence on a hypothetical mine presents key unanswered questions.

“These uncertainties are neither clearly identified nor included in the evaluations. This is a major shortcoming of the present analysis,” he said.

Oregon State University professor William Stubblefield, an internationally recognized expert in the field of environmental toxicology, said it was unclear why EPA undertook the evaluation at this time, “given that a more realistic assessment could probably have been conducted once an actual mine was proposed and greater detail about operational parameters available.”

Michael Kavanaugh, a member of the National Academy of Engineeringsaid the peer review on the EPA’s updated assessment draft, released in April, “fails to meet” EPA’s own criteria.

“The lack of an open and transparent external peer review process for review of the 2013 Assessment seriously erodes the credibility of the document, and the validity of basing any future management decisions on mining in the Bristol Bay watershed on findings” of the assessment, Kavanaugh, senior principal of Geosyntec Consultants,wrote in testimony.

The EPA, in its assessment, asserts the study “uses the well-established methodology of an ecological risk assessment.” The agency defends what it describes as a “set of conceptual models to show potential associations between the end points of interest – the salmon industry and the salmon populations – and the various types of environmental stressors that might reasonably be expected as a result of large-scale mining.”

The Natural Resources Defense Council, a New York City international environmental advocacy group, has joined a long list of powerful environmentalists endorsing the EPA’s assessment.

“Now, as the people of Bristol Bay will tell (McCarthy) loud and clear, the EPA must take the next step, finalize its assessment, and initiate action under the Clean Water Act to stop the Pebble Mine,” NRDC president Frances Beinecke proclaimed in astatement before the EPA administrator’s Alaska trip.

NRDC was front and center in Dillingham, as it has been in EPA offices inWashington, D.C., Seattle and Anchorage.

‘Thrown under the bus’

If the EPA intends on basing a far-reaching regulatory decision on a problematic assessment, Reimers and other Iliamna community members believe they won’t have a chance. They say their fate will be in the hands of distant government bureaucrats who have no idea how it feels to be cut off from opportunity.

“It’s a big deal to us. It’s like our communities are being thrown under the bus,” Reimers said. “We’re a small group of people and there’s a lot of people trying to enforce this on us.”

The tribes in the region have been forced to live with a lot of EPA regulations they find burdensome — from endangered species lists to land and water use codes. Subsistence living, the ability for the people of the Bristol Bay Region to live off the land as they once did, has gone away with stricter rules, according to Lary Hill, an Iliamna elder and bear guard supervisor for Pebble Limited Partnership.

It’s a cash economy in Iliamna now, Hill said, and there’s not much cash and not many jobs to go around.

“If (EPA) invokes its power of the Clean Water Act, it might rob the area of chance to have an industry that would allow us to do more than survive, but thrive,” the long-time resident said.

Hill and other supporters believe what Pebble Limited Partnership has long declared it can do: co-exist with Alaska’s fishing industry, creating “substantial economic activity while protecting the environment and the fishery.”

If PLP can’t do that, Hill said he doesn’t want the mine. But he said developers should have the opportunity to make their case.

EPA spokeswoman Hanady Kader, in an email to, said McCarthy’s visit to Bristol Bay was “an opportunity for her to see the area firsthand and hear directly from many stakeholders.

“She had productive conversations with tribes, Pebble Limited Partnership, and commercial fishing representatives,” Kader wrote.

The EPA hasn’t made a decision regarding its use of the Clean Water Act “authorities to protect Bristol Bay,” Kader said.

“The agency is focused on completing its scientific assessment,” she said, adding that the agency is still aiming to complete the assessment by the end of the year.

PLP CEO John Shively said in a statement he is grateful to McCarthy for making one of her first trips as EPA administrator to the proposed mine site.

“I believe this visit allowed us to have an honest conversation about the tremendous opportunity this mine would mean, first for the regions but also the nation,” Shively said, adding that McCarthy’s visit shows her “commitment” to an “open dialogue” about a complex mining project.

While Reimers said the politics surrounding the Pebble Mine proposal has dominated life in her quiet community for too long, she is hopeful EPA pushes politics and an apparent “popularity contest” aside in coming to its decision.

“We’re just hoping they make a good decision, not based on loud, political emotion but what’s best for the people who live here,” Reimers said.

Contact M.D. Kittle at

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