EPA peer review continues today

Twelve peer review scientists continue their meeting in Anchorage today to discuss the EPA’s draft Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment, which examines the potential impacts of large-scale mining in the Nushagak and Kvichak River watersheds.

Yesterday, more than 100 members of the public were granted three minutes each to comment on the scientific merits of the assessment, with testimony ranging from technical suggestions to emotional pleas. Today, the scientists’ deliberations continue without public comment. Preregistered members of the public may attend to observe; others may watch by live webcam. (Updates will also be provided at the Pebble Watch Facebook site.)

About the Peer Review team

The peer review team consists of independent scientists who are experts in areas ranging from mining and seismology to aquatic and wildlife ecology—chosen with input from the public by contractor Versar. EPA also sought public input to develop a list of 14 “charge questions” that will guide team deliberations. (Read EPA’s final Bristol Bay Charge Questions online.) Peer reviewers are charged with considering the comments; they have both a summary version and direct access to individual submissions.

Public participation has been high throughout the watershed assessment process. The assessment has been the most commented-on subject in his tenure, said EPA Region 10 Director Dennis McLerran, drawing more than 220,000 registered comments—90 percent of them generally supportive of the assessment. McLerran has been with the agency since February 2010.

Peer review meetings continue on Thursday, when the team will meet without members of the public present. Following the meetings, peer reviewers will prepare individual reviews; these will be compiled by Versar for release, first to EPA, then to the public by fall.

Photo: Joseph Chythlook, Bristol Bay Native Corporation, tells the peer review panel that the EPA has “done a good job” on its draft Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment. “The document confirms what I know as a subsistence fisherman.”

What’s next?

Next steps include evaluating public comments, and then reviewing and evaluating the peer review report, said McLerran, who emphasized the agency’s work on the watershed assessment is far from over. “We want to get the science right before we finalize the assessment.”

The watershed assessment is a scientific process, and EPA is not focused on potential regulation ­– such as a 404(c) action – that may affect mining in Bristol Bay, he said. “We will make those decisions some months down the road when the assessment is final.”

What did the public tell peer reviewers?

Tuesday’s comments to peer reviewers ranged from generally supporting the draft assessment to recommending it be thrown out entirely.

Several Pebble Limited Partnership employees objected to the assessment’s use of a hypothetical mine scenario to discuss potential risks. Some, calling the process “rushed” and “speculative,” said: the EPA had ignored large amounts of data collected by PLP; the assessment should include more modern mining practices and mitigation efforts; and asked peer reviewers to carefully review technical comments and white papers PLP submitted in July. Testimony by employees of Northern Dynasty Minerals (NDM) and Anglo-American, partners in the proposed Pebble project, was similar.

During a break in the testimony, McLerran provided some responses to these comments while addressing media: The hypothetical mine scenario, he said, was based on publicly available documents, including some by Northern Dynasty Minerals, which include modern mining practices. Data from PLP’s studies was provided in a format that hindered its analysis or use as “good science.” And charges the process was rushed or flawed are inaccurate: “EPA has been working for 19 months with internal scientists in a rigorous, lengthy process,” McLerran said. “We took the time we thought was needed. We don’t feel it was rushed. We’re still working on it. It’s not complete.”

Independent scientists and representatives of conservation or environmental groups generally spoke in support of the assessment, but identified areas they say may have underestimated mining activity impacts or risk factors. Suggestions included considering impact of waste rock from the entire Pebble deposit rather than from a portion of it. (EPA considered the impact of 6.5 million tons of waste rock; the deposit is estimated at nearly twice that). Analyzing risk to king salmon populations was also a concern for several.

Additional points of discussion for peer reviewers from residents and others familiar with Bristol Bay included whether benefits of mining should be considered in the assessment, as well as economic and social factors such as outmigration and unemployment.

Sarah McCarr, of New Stuhayok, is employed by PLP: “I get to work with people in the region. It’s the best job I’ve ever had. I wouldn’t be able to live out there without a job.”

Seth Kruse, a second-year law student and Bristol Bay Native Corporation shareholder: “I commend EPA for not using cost-benefit analysis. This is not what the watershed assessment is about.” He cited specific regulations that would disallow such analysis in the assessment.

One of the last speakers, Jennifer Robinette, of Ekuk Village Council, spoke to the “hearts and minds” of peer reviewers: “I think it’s funny when someone that doesn’t live in Bristol Bay comes up and tells you that we live in poverty. By whose standards? I know what it feels like when I run out of oil at 20-below. It’s scary. But I’m still proud of my subsistence way of life. … My Native village feels the assessment is adequate, and probably conservative, in describing the potential failures of the mine.”

Media reports on the peer reviewer meeting

Public Weighs In on Pebble Mine at EPA Hearing, KTUU news

Panel taking comments on Alaska mine study, Anchorage Daily News

Science panel hears debate over EPA’s Pebble mine report, Anchorage Daily News

EPA Holding Meetings on Bristol Bay Mine in Anchorage, KSKA

Crossfire over controversial Pebble Mine boils in Anchorage session, Alaska Dispatch