EPA Stretches Delivery Time on Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment

The US Environmental Protection Agency is adding another
layer to its Bristol Bay watershed assessment, a document that could ultimately
play a critical role in mining ventures bordering on the fisheries rich waters
of Southwest Alaska.
EPA Region 10 Administrator Dennis McLerran told the Alaska
Forum for the Environment on Feb. 5 in Anchorage that the draft revised
assessment document will be released this spring and will seek additional
public comment on that draft.
At this time a year ago, the EPA had planned to release its
final document by the end of 2012.
The EPA is also making arrangements to have the original 12
independent experts review the revised assessment and evaluate whether the
revised draft has been responsive to their peer review comments, he said.
McLerran said the EPA’s primary objective it to be sure they
get the assessment right and that they are using the best available science.
“The Bristol Bay salmon runs are an Alaskan treasure and no one wants to see
them harmed, so we want to make sure we have the best understanding possible of
what the impacts of large scale mining could be on the salmon,” he said.
McLerran also noted that the EPA has not decided yet how to
use information in the assessment and will not do so until it’s finalized.
The EPA’s own draft environmental assessment to date has
shown that even with no engineering failures or operational accidents any time
during or after operation of a large scale copper, gold and molybdenum mine in
southwest Alaska that there would be adverse affects to habitat that is home to
the world’s largest wild sockeye salmon population. These include a loss of
miles and miles of stream habitat, changes in the hydrology and loss of steam
and wetlands habitat. Failures in the mining operation could also result in
some type of leakage of acidic drainage and other contaminated waters from
waste rock pit walls and tailings, and failure of road culverts could result in
more adverse affects to habitat, the EPA has acknowledged.
News of a delay in release of the final Bristol Bay
watershed assessment is not sitting well with area residents and others opposed
to development of the proposed Pebble mine. More than a dozen tribal leaders
met with McLerran prior to his keynote address to the environmental forum and
urged the agency to move quickly and decisively to protect their region.
“In 2010 we asked the EPA to initiate a 404c action to
protection Bristol Bay,” said Jason Metrokin, president of the Bristol Bay
Native Corp. “We have been fully engaged in the process, which corroborated
what residents of the region have known for generations, that this is a one of
a kind fishery and cultural resource that merits protection.”
And Tim Bristol, Alaska program director for Trout
Unlimited, said the added delay is unacceptable to Bristol Bay’s communities
and stakeholders, “and leaves a dark cloud of uncertainty hanging over Bristol
Bay’s 14,000 jobs and its commercial and sport fishing industries.”
Alaska Natives, commercial fishermen and sportsmen who
petitioned the EPA asked for action to protect Bristol Bay, not a multi-year
study with multiple reviews, he said.