EPA Defends Process for Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment

Federal officials rebuked by the state of Alaska for conducting a Bristol Bay watershed assessment that could thwart development of a massive mine are defending the study on grounds that it will provide much information on potential effects of mining.

Dennis McLerran, administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency’s Region 10 in Seattle, made his comments in a letter to Alaska Attorney General Michael Geraghty, who was highly critical of the assessment and asked the EPA to stop it.

“The purpose of the watershed assessment effort is to research and better understand the unique resources in the Bristol Bay watershed and the effects of pollution from large-scale development on such resources, including effects on water quality and salmon fisheries,” McLerran said. “The watershed assessment is similar to other environmental assessments EPA has conducted to evaluate the impacts of past actions or estimate the potential impacts of future actions.”

McLerran also noted that the EPA intends to share the draft Bristol Bay watershed assessment with the public in early May and to begin public meetings on the watershed assessment in early June. There will also be a public meeting in Anchorage in August with the peer review panel. McLerran offered to meet with Geraghty to discuss his concerns.

The watershed assessment controversy centers on plans of the Pebble Limited Partnership to develop and operate a massive copper, gold and molybdenum prospect at the headwaters of the Bristol Bay watershed, home of the massive wild sockeye salmon run. Backers of the Pebble mine maintain that the mine can be developed and operated in harmony with the fishery. Opponents contend that the mine would have adverse effects on the fishery, particularly salmon spawning streams, which are in evidence near and at the mine site.

The watershed assessment was prompted by a request in May 2010 by nine tribes, two commercial fishing organizations, the Bristol Bay Native Corp. and others. They asked the EPA to initiate a Clean Water Act, section 404 © process to prohibit or restrict discharges of dredged or fill materials associated with metallic sulfide mining within the headwaters of the Bristol Bay watershed. Two Alaska tribes, other tribal entities, the Pebble Limited Partnership and Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell requested that the EPA instead use the standard permitting and environmental review process to evaluate proposed mining operations in the Bristol Bay watershed.