This editorial first appeared in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner:
It’s not surprising that the Environmental Protection Agency has concluded that development of the Pebble mine in Southwest Alaska could harm the salmon fishery to some extent. No one disputes the possibility.
The important task is to prevent any significant harm from becoming reality. The debate is about how to do so. The EPA’s assessment should add to that debate, not shut it down.
However, after Friday’s release of the EPA’s draft Bristol Bay watershed assessment, environmental groups said the agency should now refuse to entertain any application for a mine permit under the federal Clean Water Act.
Most of Alaska’s political leadership said that approach would be too hasty. Wait until the project owners actually apply for a permit before deciding whether the vast copper and molybdenum mine would be too harmful, they said.
The EPA’s Bristol Bay assessment didn’t analyze a particular mine plan. The Pebble Partnership, which owns the mining claims on state land, hasn’t offered one yet.
Nevertheless, the assessment projected that a big mine, covering up to 6.5 square miles, could eliminate up to 87 miles of streams. The assessment made a few common sense conclusions about what that would mean. Here’s one: “Assuming no significant accidents or failures, the development and routine operation of one large-scale mine would result in significant impacts on fish populations in streams surrounding the mine site.”
The key phrase in that sentence is “in streams surrounding the mine site.” In other words, the statement does not predict disaster for the entire Bristol Bay watershed.
While there are salmon spawning areas in the Koktuli River and in Upper Talarik Creek, which bracket the Pebble deposit, they contribute a small fraction of the total salmon run in the Nushagak and Kvichak watersheds, respectively. And only a fraction of the Koktuli and Talarik headwaters would be near the mine.
Of course, if some sort of accident occurred, the effects could wash downstream and have a greater effect. The assessment says evidence from other mines “suggests that, over the life span of a large mine, at least one or more accidents or failures could occur, potentially resulting in immediate, severe impacts on salmon and detrimental, long-term impacts on salmon habitat and production.”
That conclusion obviously is reason for concern, but it doesn’t justify slamming the door on the Pebble’s development. Alaska’s congressional delegation seems to have good reason to worry about the EPA doing so, though. That’s because the agency has been vigorously defending the option.
For example, EPA Associate Administrator Arvin Ganesan on Friday wrote to Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., with this assertion about how the Clean Water Act might apply to the streams in the Pebble region: “The plain language of the statute and the agency’s long-standing regulations clearly authorize the administrator to prohibit or restrict use of a defined area of the waters of the U.S. prior to the submittal of an application for a CWA Section 404 permit.”
The EPA administrator can do this “‘whenever (she) determines’ that the discharge of dredged or fill material ‘will have an “unacceptable adverse effect’” on municipal water supplies, shellfish beds and fishery areas (including spawning and breeding areas), wildlife or recreational areas,” Ganesan wrote, quoting the U.S. code.
This view begs a big question, though. How can the EPA determine that a proposal will have an “unacceptable adverse effect” before it even receives an application describing the proposal?
The Pebble mine has some enormous technical challenges. The mine must deal with the likelihood of acidic drainage from disturbance of the sulfur-bearing ore, drainage that could damage the waters far downstream. The owners must have an ironclad solution before the mine proceeds.
Opponents of the mine believe solving that problem is impossible and so the EPA might as well stop the mine now.
Others believe the owners should be given a chance to propose a solution. That’s the most rational course, and the EPA’s assessment says nothing that would justify deviating from it.