"Our concern is that the premature, rushed and under-informed nature of this investigation will lead to a scientifically indefensible outcome. Pebble is simply too important a resource to be subject to the whims of political rather than objective, science-based decision-making."
Concerns about EPA Region 10's proposed charge to peer reviewers of the draft Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment report presented in Northern Dynasty's submission include:
- The draft charge is too narrow and prohibits peer reviewers from fully assessing whether the scope, methodology, underlying assumptions, data sources and analysis presented in the draft report are adequate to achieve the BBWA's stated purpose. As an example, peer reviewers would be forbidden from questioning why the BBWA does not consider any positive effects of mine development, despite the significant socio-economic challenges facing the Bristol Bay region and its rapidly declining Native population. Peer reviewers would also be forbidden from assessing whether the draft BBWA report findings might be different if the EPA had considered actual environmental performance at similar mines in Alaska and Canada that operate in areas with significant salmon fisheries, rather than merely modelling such effects.
- The draft charge does not permit peer reviewers to assess whether the data and analysis that the EPA has used as the basis for its draft BBWA report are sufficient or reliable, and instead asks them to focus only on selected conclusions that have been drawn from this selective data. As an example, peer reviewers would be forbidden from questioning why the draft BBWA report does not consider all of the data and analysis on baseline environmental and social conditions in the study region provided by the Pebble Limited Partnership (PLP) as part of its Environmental Baseline Document (EBD) - a 27,000 page volume that summarizes studies undertaken over a period of eight years and at a cost of some $150 million. The Pebble EBD is the most exhaustive data source available to the EPA, and yet it has been largely overlooked. Based on this and other important data omissions and inappropriate uses, it is Northern Dynasty's view that peer reviewers should be charged to determine whether the BBWA satisfies all relevant federal standards for scientific studies undertaken in the public interest - including the US Data Quality Act and the EPA's own guidelines on information quality, and for ecological risk and watershed assessments.
- The draft charge should direct peer reviewers to confirm that key assumptions underlying the draft BBWA report are clear and reasonable. As examples, the draft BBWA report claims to have assessed "good" mining practices but provides little explanation of what 'good' mining practices entail or why it has failed to consider 'best' mining practices. The draft report fails to explain what mine design, pollution control and mitigation strategies are assumed. It fails to present or provide a rationale and justification of its assumptions about the chemical composition of various mine materials (e.g. mineral concentrate, tailings, tailings water, waste rock, discharge water). It fails to explain why the performance of temporary logging roads built under 40-year-old standards are assumed to predict the performance of permanent all-season industrial roads built to modern standards. It fails to explain why full mitigation for salmon in the no failure scenario still results in the net adverse impacts described. In the absence of understanding what assumptions have been made and the rationale for those assumptions, peer reviewers will not be able to determine whether the findings of the draft BBWA report are accurate or reasonable.
- The draft charge does not address whether it's reasonable for the EPA to focus on a single hypothetical project (Pebble) to assess the overall impacts of hard rock mining in a vast region. Peer reviewers are not permitted to investigate whether mineral development projects in different locations within the Bristol Bay watersheds, or those seeking to develop different types of mineral deposits, might have different impacts. Nor are peer reviewers permitted to assess the accuracy or completeness of the information upon which the EPA has built its hypothetical mine plan.
- The draft charge should direct peer reviewers to comment on whether the EPA has fulfilled its mandate to provide an ecosystem-based assessment of the potential effects of mine development on Bristol Bay salmon resources. For example, peer reviewers should be permitted to enquire why seven of the nine watersheds that comprise the Bristol Bay fishery are excluded from the assessment. They should be permitted to enquire whether the draft report has comprehensively assessed the potential effect of mineral development on Bristol Bay commercial, subsistence and sport-fisheries (rather than focusing on specific fish in specific water courses). Peer reviewers should also be permitted to determine whether the draft BBWA report has considered wetland and fisheries mitigation requirements under US law, which often require compensation for localized project effects by enhancing resource values at the ecosystem level (often at a multiple to the resources affected).
"EPA Region 10 has placed unacceptably narrow boundaries on the questions that peer reviewers can ask and the investigations they can undertake," Thiessen said. "These experts are also constrained by time and the limitation of conducting their review prior to receiving public comment on the draft BBWA report."