by Sam Snyder
On Wednesday, an independent peer review panel met all day to discuss the merits and shortcomings of the EPA’s draft Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment. (For a brief summary of the day one public testimony, see the previous post.)
The peer review panel consists of 12 members with expertise ranging from fisheries and ecology to mining and water quality. This panel is charged with addressing 13 questions that evaluate everything from the nature of the mine scenario in the Assessment to the risk assessment to fisheries, wildlife, and human communities posed by proposed large scale mining in the Bristol Bay watershed.
The panelists drew from their own areas of expertise to speak to the specifics of the document, but there seemed to be near unanimous belief that EPA’s Assessment provides an essential and necessary starting point for evaluating the threats large-scale mining pose to Bristol Bay. Many panelists congratulated the EPA on a significant undertaking, but noted that there is work yet to be done.
In part that work depends upon the availability of data. Because the Pebble Partnership has yet to release an ‘official’ mine plan, evaluating the impacts of a mine on Bristol Bay can be a tricky task. However, one panelist noted that the mine modeled in the Assessment was based verbatim on publicly available documents created by the developing companies, particularly Northern Dynasty Minerals. Reacting to those plans, he also noted that there’s no way an agency could or should permit a mine that has a lifespan of up to 78 years.
Longevity of mining seemed to be a considerable concern of the panel. Panel chair Roy Stein, expressed concern that the water and waste could be successfully managed in perpetuity (forever) and felt that the impacts of climate change must be factored into mining in the watershed. The panelists agreed that the Watershed Assessment correctly notes that mines of this sort, their management, and bonds for reclamation must not only outlast the mining companies, but also governments. The mine waste storage and treatment must be planned for 20,000-30,000 years as a start, or at least until the next ice age rolls through, in an area that is vast, wet, and has an intricate hydrological system of ground to surface water interaction.
Other panelists said they would like to see more information on the impact of mining roads and increased population on the region, which is relatively undeveloped at present. Others wanted a better understanding of how road culverts would affect the fish populations, and how other wildlife would certainly be impacted by new transportation infrastructure. Others were interested in additional information how the development would impact subsistence users of the region.
Throughout the day each panelist recognized the sheer size of potential mines and regardless of background, issued cautionary notes about the ability of state agencies to manage these risks, of mining companies to foresee and protect against failures in perpetuity, or to protect the region despite promises or intentions.
The panel underscored the importance of adding more information and said the draft Watershed Assessment is an essential first step in framing the discussion and evaluating the potential impacts and risks of the proposed Pebble Mine and other mines upon Bristol Bay’s fishery, wildlife, communities, and the economics of subsistence, commercial, and sport fishing.
Sam Snyder is the director of the Bristol Bay Watershed and Fisheries Protection Campaign for the Alaska Conservation Foundation.