EPA plans final assessment this year of proposed mining near Bristol Bay

JUNEAU, Alaska — The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency plans to issue a final report this year on the impacts of large-scale mining in the Bristol Bay region, regional director Dennis McLerran said.

McLerran, in prepared remarks set to be delivered Tuesday to the Alaska Forum on the Environment, said the EPA plans to release a revised draft report this spring for public comment and additional peer review. The EPA said it will consider the additional input as it prepares its final report.

The agency began its study in response to concerns about a large copper-and-gold prospect near the headwaters of one of the world’s premier salmon fisheries in Alaska. The EPA released a draft watershed assessment last year that found that, even without any failures, there would still be an impact on fish due to eliminated or blocked streams, removal of wetlands and a reduction in the amount and quality of fish habitat as water is used for mine operations.

The report offered no position on whether the proposed Pebble Mine project should move forward. McLerran said at the time that the assessment wasn’t about a single project — though Pebble is the highest-profile in the region — but was instead a look at the potential impacts of mining in the Bristol Bay region. The assessment was based on a hypothetical mine scenario that the EPA said drew in part on plans and data put forth by Pebble LP, the firm behind the mine.

The draft underwent peer review, with some panelists raising concerns about things like lack of clarity in the document’s objective, missing data and incomplete information. The EPA announced in November that it would address the concerns raised by the panel, first with a revised draft.

McLerran, in his prepared remarks, said the EPA is arranging to have the original experts review the revised assessment and evaluate whether it is responsive to their comments. The EPA plans to release the draft to the public for comment concurrently. He said he expects the additional public comment period and review will be initiated this spring, before the Bristol Bay fishing season begins.

“Our primary objective is to make sure that we have gotten the assessment right and are using the best available science,” he said in his prepared remarks. “The Bristol Bay salmon runs are an Alaskan treasure and no one wants to see them harmed, so we want to make sure we have the best understanding possible of what the impacts of large scale mining could be on the salmon.”

McLerran said the EPA intends to complete the assessment this year. The agency hasn’t decided how it will use the information and won’t until the assessment is finalized, he said.

Critics of the mine project expressed frustration with what they said could be a lengthy second review. They said they want quick action from EPA.

“While we appreciate this administration’s efforts to survey the risks and impacts of large-scale mining on the world-class natural resources and fisheries of Bristol Bay with sound science, the EPA has already gone above and beyond the letter of the law in drafting its assessment and conducting an independent and transparent review of it,” said Tim Bristol, Alaska program director for Trout Unlimited, in a news release.

He said the “added delay is unacceptable to Bristol Bay’s communities and stakeholders.”

The EPA process has been criticized by Pebble LP, the state, pro-development groups and others, who see the agency’s actions as premature and an overreach that could lead to it vetoing mining activity in the region.

U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said EPA’s draft assessment was flawed.

“The agency chose to evaluate a hypothetical mine that was basically designed to violate modern environmental standards,” she said in a news release. “Until the EPA fixes this fundamental flaw, the agency’s draft assessment will remain a work of fiction rather than sound science.”

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