Three of the four witnesses at a Congressional hearing on the EPA’s Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment heavily criticized both its findings and process, saying it was “discouraging” and lacked credibility.
The controversial $2.4 million taxpayer-funded assessment warned against the construction of Pebble Mine in Alaska’s Bristol Bay, where $500 billion worth of copper, gold and other minerals lie near the world’s largest source of sockeye salmon. Supporters of the gigantic mine proposal say it would create jobs and prosperity, while critics say it would wreck the area’s environment and fishing industry.
But the hearing on Thursday was not about whether the mine should be constructed as much as whether the EPA was right to release the pre-emptive watershed assessment well before mining companies could apply for a permit and go through an Environmental Impact Statement under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) – the usual process.
“Since [the assessment] is being undertaken before an application has been submitted, it is not able to utilize the important project’s specific information which would be generated for the application,” environmental lawyer Lowell Rothschild said.
The assessment’s scientific conclusions also came under fire from Dr. Michael Kavanaugh, a member of the National Academy of Engineering and an engineering consultant.
Kavanaugh, who was paid by mining companies to conduct an independent analysis of the EPA’s assessment, slammed the first draft of the report and its follow-up, saying they “fail to meet widely accepted quality and peer-review standards” and “significantly exaggerate” the probability of technological failure by using examples of outdated machinery.
Kavanaugh also said that having served on several EPA peer review panels himself it was “discouraging to see the many limitations on the reliability and credibility of the 2013 assessment.”
The criticisms were countered by Wayne Nastri, the co-president of an environmental consultancy group and the only expert witness who supported the EPA.
He justified the EPA’s early action on the issue, saying it responded swiftly to locals’ concerns: “[The EPA was] requested to take action in Bristol Bay by Alaskans who sought assistance on an issue that threatens their sustainable economy, their jobs, their culture, and their ability to live in areas they have lived in for thousands of years.”
Nastri also said the scientifically “sound and, if anything, conservative” assessment “identifies significant adverse impacts to the fishery and is a key trigger to 404(c) action,” which would let the EPA veto mining in the area altogether.
Witnesses during the hearing were asked whether EPA’s assessment was ever necessary in the first place.
Republican Rep. Paul Broun asked, “Is there anything unique in the watershed assessment that would not be addressed in an environmental impact assessment under NEPA?”
The witnesses answered “no,” except Nastri, who replied, “I’m not aware at this time of anything that would not be addressed.”
“So the answer is no, is that correct?” Broun shot back.
Nastri repeated himself, saying “I’m not aware of it, sir.”
“Okay, as far as you know it’s ‘no’ then,” Broun concluded.
Nastri went on to argue the mining companies did cause environmental damage despite not having built anything by creating a climate of “uncertainty” and “anxiety” around Bristol Bay which curtailed local investment.
Broun ended the meeting by reiterating that mining companies be given due process:
“If it turns out a mine cannot be developed without endangering the salmon in Alaska, then the EPA has the authority to deny the requisite permits, and should, and will have done so by following the due process instead of setting a costly and chilling precedent that may send more jobs out of the United States to countries whose laws have little regard to their environment or their citizens,” Broun said.
Chuckling and somewhat exasperated, Broun finally remarked, “I suspect it won’t be our last discussion on the topic.”
It certainly doesn’t seem like the EPA will give up fighting Pebble Mine anytime soon: On Tuesday, the EPA’s new head administrator, Gina McCarthy, said she may travel to Bristol Bay herself to see how the project could operate.