Keystone Center science panels finish up with lingering questions

Two days of Keystone Center science panels concluded this Tuesday with a focus on the transportation corridor study area and a final wrap-up of reviewer comments and discussion points that ranged from detailed to philosophical. Questions by the independent scientists involved in the review included basics, such as “What is baseline data?” and “What is the purpose of this document?”

The panels were held May 6 and May 7 at the Consortium Library on the University of Alaska Anchorage campus to review portions of the Pebble Limited Partnership’s (PLP) Environmental Baseline Document (EBD). Panels were structured to allow a dialogue between contracted scientists who had written portions of the EBD, independent scientists who reviewed specific chapters, and members of the public.

Several reviewers noted that while the existing work is voluminous and well-done, it is insufficient as a baseline study. Phil North, recently retired from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and participating as a member of the public, summed it up: “We’ve heard in all of these sessions that this is very good survey work. There’s a lot more work that still needs to be done, more information that needs to be collected. I want to suggest that the inventory work is probably exceptional, but it’s not very useful without linking it to an ecosystem.”

Trace Elements

The day began with Peter Albers, Ph.D. posing questions to PLP’s Jane Whitsett and Charlotte McKay regarding trace element studies, in which PLP consultants had tested soil, sediment, vegetation and fish tissue for traces of elements such as copper, nickel, cadmium and lead. Albers is a wildlife biologist and wildlife toxicologist who worked as an expert consultant on the Exxon Valdez and Deepwater Horizon oil spills.

Albers noted that the report assumes trace elements won’t affect smaller animals. He cautioned that, “You cannot assume ahead of time that it is nice and predictable. It isn’t.” Based on his past experience with the Exxon Valdez oil spill, he advised PLP to archive tissue samples for future study; currently they are kept for five years. “You are going to all this trouble to collect animals and plants. It’s a shame to throw them out.” Albers said that with advances in technology, some tests may be possible in the future that aren’t possible now. Saving the tissue samples for future study may allow scientists to determine whether certain toxins were present before development activities.

Scientists at odds over bird study methodology

Terry Schick, Ph.D., a senior scientist with Pebble consulting firm ABR, Inc., presented the EBD studies on birds found in the transportation corridor study area. The transportation corridor studies are important to help understand the environment around the proposed 86-mile road that is planned, and to assist developers in choosing a site for the port.

On the first day of the Keystone science panels, ABR’s methodology for conducting bird counts was beset by a flock of criticisms, with reviewers stipulating that the “point-count” method used was out-of-date and inadequate. On Tuesday, Schick defended this method, noting that it is accepted for studying large numbers of birds in Alaska, especially when surveying by plane.

Bob Day, Ph.D., senior scientist/principal at ABR, described at length the methodologies and results from marine wildlife surveys conducted in the transportation corridor study area. He spoke to the difficulty of surveying, noting that it is difficult to get boats into the bays. “There are extensive mudflats over most of these bays. It’s some of the hairiest boating I’ve ever done.” Other methods of study were used, including helicopter and fixed-wing surveys.

Reviewers Robert McFarlane, Ph.D. and Falk Huettman, Ph.D., again questioned the value of the point-count survey method again. “It is hard to defend this as world-class science if the latest methods aren’t being used,” said Huettman. McFarlane said an alternative method, distance sampling, is easy and fast.

But, Day said, distance sampling would not have been appropriate for the conditions. “In moderate to high [population] densities, distance sampling doesn’t work so well,” he said. “You become swamped quite quickly. In these narrow bays, where you have sometimes tens of thousands of birds, it becomes impossible to do the correct calculations for distance sampling.”

“All the literature out there speaks against this,” rebutted Huettman. “Detectability one way or another must be addressed. Distance sampling is used in the U.S. and Europe. I think now the state-of-the-art of science has moved forward.”

“We will have to agree to disagree on distance sampling,” added McFarlane later in the conversation, addressing the consultants from ABR. “But if you ever get serious about estimating seabird density, you need to contact me, because I pioneered the method.”

PLP urged to make data “open access”

Despite disagreements over how data was collected, reviewers did agree about the volume of work done. “This is one of the most intensive research development studies I’ve been involved with,” said Day. The EBD covered studies from 2004-2008, but some studies have been ongoing since then. “It’s a huge project over a huge area,” said Day. “Right now we are working on what we jokingly call ‘Son of EBD.’ We’ve added to the massive amount of data. We are in the process of working on reports trying to summarize the last four years of data.”

“Realizing there are always going to be scientific disagreements on methods, these consultants were constrained by budget and what PLP would like to see out of them,” said Robert Naiman, Ph.D., who reviewed the wetlands chapters of the EBD. “Nevertheless, I thought what they produced were highly valuable datasets for Alaska and the region.” However, he added that the studies were not baseline in the strict sense of the word. “In my mind, this period that was reported on was really a period of discovery. So when do you stop discovering and then implement a more rigorous monitoring program? The period of discovery is largely over, and now it’s time to put a structural framework on the environmental work.”

Albers suggested that consultants consider publishing the important portions of their studies in journals that are peer-reviewed. “It gives you credibility, forces you to get rid of the fluff, forces you to explain and justify why you did what you did and interpret properly,” said Albers. “It’s good for the company and the scientific community.”

“Publishing today means open access to the data,” added Huettman. “It’s not just a hardcopy booklet. I would hope to see data showing up in a public repository. Thirty percent of data collected in Alaska gets lost. We should have open access to the data…so when you search for it, you have something to see – a solid public argument rather than just speculation.”

Huettman is likely referencing the fact that PLP has declined to share raw data from the EBD, saying that if shared it could be corrupted or misinterpreted. For reviewers, looking over large amounts of data in a locked PDF format has been a challenge, which Pebble Watch reported on during the October Keystone science panels. (See “Data Dilemma” in our October 2012 newsletter.)

Public should use “ecolocy”, question data

James Dickenson, a lifelong Alaskan, asked the collected scientists a question that many members of the public might have, especially in light of the disagreements over methods: “This scientific study is extensive. What should stakeholders be looking for when evaluating this large a piece of work?”

Huettman responded that there needs to be reliable and sound baseline info, using the best scientific methods, and that studies not conducted that way should be noted. “It should be flagged if it is missing components, should be transparent, with open access online so people can evaluate what has been claimed.”

McFarlane recommended a book by Garret Hardin, “Filters Against Folly: How To Survive Despite Economists, Ecologists, and the Merely Eloquent.” In this book, explained McFarlane, the author suggests three filters for citizens and scientists – literacy, numeracy and “ecolocy.” Literacy examines what the project says it’s going to do and numeracy looks at the numbers. Then you see if the numbers match the words. “Numbers are usually buried in the appendices in these types of reports… sometimes they don’t match,” said McFarlane. “Ecolocy asks the question,”and then what happens? What happens after you build the project?”

Future studies, reports and panels

Wrapping up the panels, PLP noted that some recommendations will be rolled into future studies. Todd Bryan of Keystone said that a report of all recommendations would come out in the future and that Keystone expects to organize another panel on the topic of a mine plan. This will be held after the mine plan comes out, likely later this year.

Read the Pebble Watch summary of Day 1 of the Keystone panels