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Nearly 40,000 people comment on EPA's Bristol Bay watershed assessment

July 27th, 2012 | Carey Restino Print this article   Email this article  

The comment period for the Bristol Bay watershed assessment closed this week with approximately 39,500 public comments being received by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Next on the agenda is a peer review meeting to analyze the scientific content and merit of the draft assessment, which will be held Aug. 7 through 9 in Anchorage at the Dena'ina Civic and Convention Center. The first day will include oral testimony, the second will be public deliberations, with the third day devoted to a private meeting of the panel. The EPA is limiting the number of speakers at that meeting to 100, and speakers will be selected in order to best represent a balance of science-related issues relevant to the assessment. Speakers had to register in advance in order to be considered for selection.

According to the EPA's web site, the panel will not be making recommendations to the EPA concerning potential future actions or policies, and instead will focus solely on "issues of science relevant to the assessment, rather than its policy implications."

Topics on which people are invited to comment on include: (i) Mine scenario and operational modes; (ii) potential failures and probabilities; (iii) hydrology; (iv) toxicity; (v) potential effects on Alaska Native culture; (vi) potential effects on fish; (vii) potential effects on wildlife; and (viii) other issues.

Members for the peer review panel were selected from 68 nominated candidates, and include: Mr. David Atkins, Watershed Environmental, LLC.—Expertise in mining and hydrology; Mr. Steve Buckley, WHPacific—Expertise in mining and seismology; Dr. Courtney Carothers, University of Alaska Fairbanks—Expertise in indigenous Alaskan cultures; Dr. Dennis Dauble, Washington State University—Expertise in fisheries biology and wildlife ecology; Dr. Gordon Reeves, USDA Pacific NW Research Station—Expertise in fisheries biology and aquatic biology.; Dr. Charles Slaughter, University of Idaho—Expertise in hydrology; Dr. John Stednick, Colorado State University—Expertise in hydrology and biogeochemistry; Dr. Roy Stein, Ohio State University—Expertise in fisheries and aquatic biology; Dr. William Stubblefield, Oregon State University—Expertise in aquatic biology and ecotoxicology; Dr. Dirk van Zyl, University of British Columbia—Expertise in mining; Dr. Phyllis Weber Scannell—Expertise in aquatic ecology and ecotoxicology; Dr. Paul Whitney—Expertise in wildlife ecology and ecotoxicology.

The EPA announced last year that it was moving forward with a draft assessment of the potential impacts of a mine in the Bristol Bay watershed, despite the fact that the Pebble Partnership, which hopes to develop a massive gold, copper and molybdenum mine near Illiamna, had not applied for any permits yet.

Proponents of the mine called for the EPA to retract its assessment, which they called inadequate and hurried, and at the very least, extend the public comment period for an additional 60 days beyond the busy summer season. Opponents, however, said the EPA's actions were called for because of the huge risk to the Bristol Bay salmon industry as the proposed mine is located in the headwaters of rich fishing region.

In testimony given in Anchorage, hundreds turned out to speak, often passionately, about their concerns both for and against the mine and the EPAs actions. Concerns were raised about the implications of the EPAs ruling, should it move forward. Would it impact other projects in the region, many asked?

The EPA announced shortly after that it would not extend the comment period, but noted that the draft assessment was a preliminary document, not one with enforcement action attached. Its assessment, however, did say that a large-scale mine in the headwaters of the Bristol Bay region was likely to have a negative impact on the fishery there, even without a major disaster.

A final EPA watershed assessment document is expected to be released this fall.


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