Public Weighs In on Pebble Mine at EPA Hearing
Event Is Last Chance for Public Comment Before Scientific Panel Considers Project
KKTU | Dan Fiorucci
August 7, 2012
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The Environmental Protection Agency convened a three-day peer review hearing Tuesday concerning its watershed assessment of the proposed Pebble Mine, which is also the public's last chance to testify before an EPA scientific panel took up the document for review.
More than 100 people showed up, with the majority saying they were pleased that EPA had decided to intervene in the permitting process.
Definitely not pleased was John Shively, the CEO of the Pebble Limited Partnership. Shively views the EPA examination of water quality as an unwarranted intrusion into the State of Alaska's affairs.
Shively has also been highly critical of the EPA's 300-page watershed assessment for Pebble, which the agency published in May after a year of study. The assessment says that even normal, "no-failure" operation of Pebble without environmental incidents would "reduce the amount and quality of fish habitat" in the Bristol Bay area.
The document goes on to predict that Pebble's normal operations will necessarily reduce stream flows within miles of the mine -- because even routine mining for copper, gold and molybdenum, Pebble's target metals, requires lots of water. If Pebble reaches its full scope, it would be the largest mine of its type in North America.
"Reductions in streamflow exceeding 20% would adversely affect habitat (on) 1.2 to 6.2 miles of streams, reducing production of coho salmon, sockey salmon, Chinook salmon rainbow trout, and Dolly Varden," EPA officials wrote in an executive summary of the assessment.
Shively has always claimed that his mine would not adversely affect salmon, repeatedly promising that Pebble will either operate without harming salmon runs or it will not operate at all. He opposes the watershed assessment and characterizes it as a document that does not reflect the actual planning for the construction of Pebble Mine -- which is still evolving.
Shively told an EPA scientific panel gathered at the Dena'ina Center Tuesday that because the agency was not working with the actual mine plans, its assessment assumed a "fantasy mine" in order to compose the report.
"The fantasy mine the EPA uses to measure the substantial impacts in this very large watershed has no basis in reality in the 21st century," Shively said.
But EPA Division 10 Chief Dennis McLerran took exception to Shively's characterization of his agency's study.
"We don't think it's a fantasy," McLerran told reporters. "We think it's based on what's been put forward by actual mining companies."
McLerran says the assessment was based on public documents filed by the Pebble Partnership with the Securities and Exchange Commission and other government agencies.
The disagreement is significant because, according to a recent documentary on Pebble by the award-winning PBS program "Frontline," State of Alaska agencies have never failed to approve a major mine project -- which is why Pebble opponents turned to the EPA.
The agency has the power to unilaterally prevent Pebble from becoming a reality if the agency finds the project unable to comply with the federal Clean Water Act.
The hearing wasn't ruled by the sparring between Shively and McLerran, however, because it was a day for the general public to testify. A running tally kept by Channel 2 during five hours of testimony indicates that those speaking against the mine Tuesday outnumbered those speaking in favor of it.
In addition, the EPA says it has gotten an astonishing 220,000 comments on Pebble by way of the Internet. McLerran says most of them, about 95 percent, supported an agency examination of Pebble.
At the Dena'ina Center, 113 people signed up to speak before the EPA during Tuesday's eight hours of scheduled testimony. Only a small handful failed to show up.
Among those who opposed Pebble, some said that the watershed assessment was a good document, but that it was too conservative in its consideration of the possible risks.
"I feel the 'no-failure' scenario is unrealistic," testified Ann Maest of Stratus Consulting, an environmental research firm that has worked for the EPA. She said mines inevitably have failures.
Bonnie Gestring with the environmental group Earthworks agreed, claiming that all mines the group studied experienced spills.
"The record shows that 100 percent of those mines experienced a pipeline spill, or other accidental spill of toxic material," Gestring said. "Most experienced multiple spills."
Not everyone agreed that Pebble was risky. Norman Gridley, who works for Anglo-American, one of the Pebble Partners, testified about a major public concern -- failure of a tailings dam. Under some scenarios Pebble could have a dam 685 feet high, taller than the Washington Monument or the St. Louis Arch, but Gridley said the watershed assessment assigned too much weight to a possible collapse.
"The risk of a catastrophic failure of a tailings dam, which is given a very high profile in the assessment, and the probabilities used to evaluate that risk, are not based on today's mining decisions," Gridley testified.
Pebble has always said that the tailings pond would be built to the highest standards, with a one-in-a-million chance of failure in any given year. But because that pond must last "in perpetuity" according to the EPA, opponents are still worried.
Not everyone showed up at Tuesday's hearing solely to talk about the environment. Some did so to discuss a way of life.
The EPA estimates that 4,000 Alaska Natives live in 25 villages spread throughout the watershed of the proposed mine site, an issue which has caused some divisions within the region.
Many Alaska Natives in the region see Pebble as a potential threat to their culture. Lots of outsiders are likely to come to the Bristol Bay area, and lots of roads are likely to be built. There are fears that Pebble could threaten a subsistence lifestyle, handed down from generation to generation for at least 4,000 years, that many people treasure.
"Each generation teaches the other how to hunt and gather resources," testified Greg Andrew, Jr. of the Lovelock Village Council.
But Alaska Native Sarah McCarr of Bristol Bay, who now is one of 62 people from the area already working for the Pebble Partnership, painted things differently in her testimony.
She told the scientists that subsistence living means intense poverty, and many at the hearing pointed out that poverty in rural Alaska can be more extreme than poverty in the Lower 48.
McCarr wants to see people in her region get a shot at hundreds of good-paying jobs that Pebble would bring.
"It's really hard for us to raise money and a lot of our kids -- including my brother -- does drugs," she said, her voice cracking as she broke into tears.
Pebble, she believes, can offer a modicum of prosperity to those in her region who don't have it.
The EPA's scientific panel will have up to a year to decide whether Pebble can operate in compliance with the Clean Water Act.