Alaska Editorial: Pebble pounded: Latest EPA study is more cause for concern

This editorial first appeared in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner:

No one should have expected that the April 26 release of a revised draft of the Bristol Bay watershed assessment by the U.S. Environmental Protection would have seen the agency do a U-turn on the matter of large-scale mining in the region.

If anything, people should have expected that a revision would see the agency reassert that large-scale mining isn’t a good fit for the area.

That’s apparently what the EPA has done.

The revised assessment deals primarily with the topic of the Pebble deposit and not the proposed Pebble Mine itself. The Pebble Limited Partnership — the proposed mine’s lead proponent — says the underlying mineral deposit is one of the largest of its kind in the world and that it could produce 81 billion pounds of copper, 107 million ounces of gold and 5.6 billion pounds of molybdenum over several decades.

The EPA says the environmental cost of large-scale development of the deposit would be significant.

The agency last year released a watershed assessment that concluded that large-scale mining on the scale of Pebble would cause major damage to fish habitat even if operated successfully and that the quantity of waste material from the mine would bury extensive stretches of fish and wildlife habitat. The agency then decided to revise its assessment after receiving public comments and getting feedback from a peer review panel.

The revised assessment, made public Friday, focuses primarily on the Kvichak and Nushagak river drainages and says that a large-scale mine like that of Pebble could erase up to 90 miles of streams, reduce flow in up to 34 miles of other streams, and cause the loss of 1,200 to 4,800 acres of wetlands. It analyzed a variety of impacts, including of the failure of a tailings dam as high as 685 feet — a dam that, as the EPA documents notes, “would be higher than the St. Louis Gateway Arch and the Washington Monument.”

But should this latest EPA document mean that the Pebble project should die before its proponents have even applied for a permit?

No.

The EPA says its document makes no recommendation, that doing so is not the purpose of the document. But supporters of the dam fear that the EPA is moving toward a preemptive veto of the Pebble project. Some of Alaska’s political leaders past and present have questioned the appropriateness of the EPA producing a watershed assessment before a project permit has even been requested.

Whether or not Pebble is a good project for Alaska hasn’t been fully determined yet. It’s a debate that should continue.

And Alaska’s leaders should insist that the EPA not act prematurely.

The EPA is taking public comment on the revised draft Bristol Bay watershed assessment until May 31. Comments can be submitted online, by email or in writing. Go online to www2.epa.gov/bristolbay to find out more.

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