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The EPA and the Pebble project: Federal agency shouldn’t use latest report to pre-judge mine project

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Fairbanks Daily News-Miner editorial

The possibility of a large-scale mine being developed to extract minerals from the Pebble deposit in the Bristol Bay region took another public relations hit Wednesday with the release of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s final watershed assessment of mining in the region.

The EPA assessment doesn’t say a mine shouldn’t be allowed in the area. But you can be certain that this document, like the draft assessment before it, will further the campaign against allowing a major mining project to begin in a region known for its spectacular salmon fishery.

The final assessment looked at the impact of various sizes of a mine at Pebble, assessing the impact on terrain, waterways and fisheries and the impact that damage to those would have on the people of the region.

It looked at potential damage caused by problems during operation of a mine, gauging the harm caused by such incidents as the failure of the tailings dam, spillage of concentrate into streams and wetlands, leakage of toxic return water, spills of diesel fuel and truck accidents.

Yes, there are risks, as with most any large project.

But the conclusion of the assessment’s summary points out that the study itself contains many uncertainties and unknowns about the impact on land, fish and people. This isn’t a document on which a final determination about Pebble should be made.

The document, by its own admission, shouldn’t be the end of the discussion about Pebble. No project has been formally presented. Permits have not been requested, so there’s no project plan to look at.

Nevertheless, supporters and opponents of Pebble will likely now be waiting to see if EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy issues a pre-emptive order blocking such a project in the region.

The EPA believes it has the authority under the Clean Water Act to remove an area from consideration before a project under discussion has actually been presented, essentially pre-judging a project. This watershed assessment was clearly undertaken because of the possibility of developing the Pebble deposit.

Pre-judging a project is not the way the system should work. As the president of the Alaska Oil and Gas Association noted in response to the EPA report, such pre-judging could be a bad precedent for future oil and gas projects in Alaska.

The EPA’s final assessment states the document “does not reflect any conclusions or judgments about the need for or scope of potential government action, nor does it offer or analyze options for future decisions.

“Rather, it is intended to provide a characterization of the biological and mineral resources of the Bristol Bay watershed, increase understanding of the risks from large-scale mining to the region’s fish resources, and inform future government decisions.”

That “future government decision” should be one based on the details of a submitted project — again, there isn’t one — and on an analysis of options.

Whether development of the Pebble deposit is good for Alaska has yet to be determined. EPA Administrator McCarthy shouldn’t use the contents of this final watershed assessment to preclude Alaskans from deciding what’s best for this state.

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