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Watchdog: Accountability

Growing questions about credibility of EPA's Pebble Mine 'science'

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Watchdog,Environment,Interior,EPA,Accountability,Energy and Environment

Buried this week beneath coverage of an 'exhausted" Edward Snowden and Anthony Weiner's plummeting New York mayoral campaign — or is that Carlos Danger? — was a key House committee hearing into what critics see as the flawed science of the Environmental Protection Agency.

The House Science, Space and Technology Committee's Subcommittee on Oversight hearing probed the EPA's watershed assessment of Alaska's Bristol Bay, raising questions about the agency’s use of a hypothetical scenario in trying to gauge the impact of a proposed mine.

Assessment experts who testified Thursday expressed concerns about the study and its review process, and committee Republicans ripped the EPA for any move that would pre-emptively veto the project before its developers submit a plan.

Bristol Bay, about 200 air miles from Anchorage in southwest Alaska's outback, is home to the second-largest sockeye salmon fishery in the world. The watershed, home to the Pebble deposit, also contains the second-largest reserves of copper and gold in the world, according to some estimates.

The battle began almost immediately in 2007, when mining giants Northern Dynasty Minerals and Anglo American formed the Pebble Limited Partnership. PLP's aim — to "design, permit, construct and operate a modern, long-life metals mine at Pebble."

With estimates pegging the Pebble deposit at $500 billion in untapped copper, gold and molybdenum, PLP's projected annual operating budget has been estimated at $1 billion, although the partnership has not filed a mining permit. about 200 air miles from Anchorage in southwest Alaska's outback, is home to the second largest sockeye salmon fishery in the world. The watershed, home to the Pebble deposit, also contains the second largest reserves of copper and gold in the world, according to some estimates.

The battle began almost immediately in 2007, when mining giants Northern Dynasty Minerals and Anglo American formed the Pebble Limited Partnership. PLP's aim — to "design, permit, construct and operate a modern, long-life metals mine at Pebble."

With estimates pegging the Pebble deposit at $500 billion in untapped copper, gold and molybdenum, PLP's projected annual operating budget has been estimated at $1 billion, although the partnership has not filed a mining permit.

It may not get the chance.

Fearing a large-scale mine's impact on the region and a fishing industry said to support 12,000 seasonal jobs, mine opponents have urged the Obama administration to employ a special provision in the federal Clean Water Act — known as Section 404 — to kill the proposed mine, even before the requisite and lengthy permit process.

Nelli Williams, Alaska program deputy director for Trout Unlimited, last month told Watchdog.org , "It is time for the Obama administration to lead on this issue. From Trout Unlimited's perspective, this is the wrong mine in the wrong place."

The EPA opted to complete the watershed assessment, insisting it would not make any decisions until the study is vetted and public comment is received. Its latest assessment asserts a large-scale mine could lay to waste to nearly 100 miles of streams and 4,800 acres of wetlands.

Some peer reviewers ripped apart the original assessment conducted last year. Veteran engineer Dirk van Zyl, for example, said the assessment's dependence on a hypothetical mine presents key unanswered questions.

"These uncertainties are neither clearly identified, nor included in the evaluations. This is a major shortcoming of the present analysis," he said.

Oregon State University Professor William Stubblefield, an internationally recognized expert in the field of environmental toxicology, said it was unclear why EPA undertook the evaluation at this time, "given that a more realistic assessment could probably have been conducted once an actual mine was proposed and greater detail about operational parameters available."

Michael Kavanaugh, a member of the National Academy of Engineering said the peer review on the EPA's updated assessment draft, released in April, "fails to meet" EPA's own criteria.

"The lack of an open and transparent external peer review process for review of the 2013 Assessment seriously erodes the credibility of the document, and the validity of basing any future management decisions on mining in the Bristol Bay watershed on findings" of the assessment, Kavanaugh, senior principal of Geosyntec Consultants, wrote in testimony.

The EPA contends it based its assessment on preliminary PLP plans submitted to the Alaska Department of Natural Resources, as well as information submitted to the federal Securities and Exchange Commission.

Wayne Nastri, a former regional administrator for the EPA under George W. Bush and consultant for the Bristol Bay Native Corp., a mine opponent, says the EPA's assessment is solid. If anything, Nastri said, the conclusions are too conservative.

But the science behind the study fails to account for modern mining design and operations that would "reduce the probability and consequences" of mine-related failures, Kavanaugh wrote.

The bigger concern, say Republican members of the subcommittee, is the possible preemptive strike against the mine.

Subcommittee Chairman Paul Broun, R-Georgia, said a preemptive veto would set a "dangerous precedent, and could have a chilling effect on similar projects throughout the nation."

"Investors would be wary of funding projects if they believed that a federal agency could just say no at any time to a company prior to permit applications," said Broun, a long-time member of Trout Unlimited who insists he is neither an advocate for the mine nor an opponent of it.

"A prospective decision of such magnitude by the EPA should be based on the best possible science," he added.

It may not get the chance.

M.D. Kittle is a reporter for Wisconsinreporter.org, which is affiliated with Watchdog.org and the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity.

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