EPA peer review panel: assessment has good information on fish, big gaps in many other areas

The 12 peer review panelists reviewing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's draft Bristol Bay watershed assessment said Wednesday that, overall, the report is a good starting point to determine the agency's next steps regarding large-scale mining in the Bristol Bay region. The draft assessment did a good job at reviewing the potential affects that a large-scale mine would have on fish, especially salmon, but otherwise has several areas that should be addressed.

"This document is a good place to start, but is a work in progress," said William Stubblefield, a senior research professor in the Department of Molecular and Environmental Toxicology at Oregon State University and an expert in aquatic biology and ecotoxicology.

During the full-day meeting that was open to the public, reviewers said there are several gaps in the assessment. Several panelists noted the lack of consideration for any potential effects of climate change.

"I don't know how you can do any assessment without that," said Gordon Reeves, a research fish biologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Aquatic and Land Interaction program. "It's going to have a big impact, especially with combined with the changes with a mine. There are tools out there that can help with this process."

Several panelists said the assessment also failed to consider how regulatory agencies may curtail the various risks outlined in the report, and it omitted the effects to other wildlife.

The panelists were tasked to review 14 charge questions, each asking about the soundness of the science in the report. They also were asked for recommendations for other literature or data not referenced in the assessment.

Chairman Roy Stein, professor emeritus at the Ohio State University in Columbus and an expert in fisheries and aquatic biology, led the discussions. Stein read each question and panelists were free to offer their comments and suggestions, taking about a half-hour for each. Occasionally, scientists had technical discussions on a topic: one would ask a question and others would offer their expertise on the subject.

About 85 people attended the session to observe. On Tuesday, panelists heard public comments from more than 100 people. See yesterday's Pebble Watch story.

Panelists said it was difficult to determine whether the science in the report was sound given the fact that the assessment was based on a hypothetical mine instead of an actual mine plan.

"As scientists, we like to quantify things," Stubblefield said. "We can't do that because there's no mine plan; it's hypothetical."

"This hypothetical mine, there's a sense of unfairness because it doesn't give the mine companies the opportunity to come back and say that they'll work to lessen the risk, or no they wouldn't," said Phyllis Weber Scannell, an environmental consultant and former senior biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

Several panelists, including Scannell and Reeves, suggested the tailings dam failure scenarios were minimized; the downstream affects would be farther-reaching than indicated. The assessment should also build a scenario investigating the affects to streams if mine operators removed all the sulfides from the tailings, said Dirk van Zyl, professor and chair of mining and the environment at the Norman B. Keevil Institute of Mining Engineering at the University of British Columbia. Removing the sulfides could greatly reduce the damage downstream, he said.

Scannell and Stein noted that the idea of perpetuity was "scary," but neither offered suggestions for long-term monitoring.

"Mines where I've worked, we've seen seepage from waste rock, seepage in drainage and drill holes from the 1970s," Scannell said. "It is a problem and needs to be addressed. The problem with a hypothetical mine is, can it be designed for closure? I can't answer that."

Other comments and suggestions from the panel:

  • More study on the interactions between surface and ground waters.
  • Ranges of risk should be provided for the failure scenarios, describing the most optimistic and the most pessimistic options. Or by using industry "good practice" compared to "best practice" standards.
  • Put the failure scenarios into context: Is the area in the scenario affected the most or least productive area in terms of fish and wildlife?
  • There are no site comparisons: could the risk be reduced if a mine was located in a different area than what was used in the hypothetical scenario?
  • Build scenarios for non-catastrophic failures, for example, leaks in the tailings dam as opposed to breaches.
  • Ecological characteristics on salmon are good, but are lacking for other fish species.
  • Impacts to threatened or endangered species are not addressed.
  • Look at the impacts of noise levels to wildlife: noise from operations and blasting, as well as along the transportation corridor.
  • Address the risk of invasive species, especially along the road corridor.
  • The culverts in the transportation corridor should be reviewed, to consider 100-year floods, ice flows and blockages, as well as climate change effects.
  • Do a better assessment of the human impacts, including the impacts to subsistence, potential decreases in the quality and quantity of salmon. Case studies from the Exxon Valdez could be used, said Courtney Carothers, an assistant professor in the School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and an expert in indigenous Alaska cultures. The agency also should consider the impacts to the cash economy of all residents - Native and non-Native.

What's next?

Panelists are meeting today behind closed doors to come up with their recommendations to the EPA. The agency will consider the suggestions when finalizing the Bristol Bay watershed assessment. The peer review report, as well as the reports from the individual panelists, will be made public this fall.

The 12 peer review panel members:

David Atkins, Watershed Environmental, LLC - Expertise in mining and hydrology.

Steve Buckley, WHPacific - Expertise in mining and seismology.

Courtney Carothers, University of Alaska Fairbanks - Expertise in indigenous Alaskan cultures.

Dennis Dauble, Washington State University - Expertise in fisheries biology and wildlife ecology.

Gordon Reeves, USDA Pacific NW Research Station - Expertise in fisheries biology and aquatic biology.

Charles Slaughter, University of Idaho - Expertise in hydrology.

John Stednick, Colorado State University - Expertise in hydrology and biogeochemistry.

Roy Stein, Ohio State University - Expertise in fisheries and aquatic biology.

William Stubblefield, Oregon State University - Expertise in aquatic biology and ecotoxicology.

Dirk van Zyl, University of British Columbia - Expertise in mining.

Phyllis Weber Scannell - Expertise in aquatic ecology and ecotoxicology.

Paul Whitney - Expertise in wildlife ecology and ecotoxicology.

Media reports on the peer review meeting

EPA peer review continues today, Pebble Watch.

Tag team of scientists scrutinizes EPA's Bristol Bay watershed assessment, Alaska Dispatch

Scientists Discuss Pebble Watershed Risks in Public Session, KTUU

Georgia congressman raises concerns with EPA mine study, Anchorage Daily News

For more information:

Links to more information on the EPA draft watershed assessment and the proposed Pebble mine.

Read the 14 charge questions.

Read the written comments submitted to the EPA.

The EPA Bristol Bay page.

Pebble Watch Explores.

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