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EPA plans scientific assessment of Bristol Bay watershed
Assessment responds to concerns of tribes, businesses, and others about development proposals


February 09, 2011
Wednesday PM

(SitNews) The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced Monday it will conduct a scientific assessment of the Bristol Bay watershed to better understand how future large-scale development projects may affect water quality and Bristol Bay’s salmon fishery, an extraordinary salmon resource for the United States. EPA initiated this assessment in response to concerns from federally-recognized tribes and others who petitioned the agency in 2010 to assess any potential risks to the watershed.

“The Bristol Bay watershed is essential to the health, environment and economy of Alaska,” said EPA Regional Administrator Dennis McLerran. “Gathering data and getting public input now, before development occurs, just makes sense. Doing this we can be assured that our future decisions are grounded in the best science and information and in touch with the needs of these communities. We look forward to working with Alaskans to protect and preserve this valuable resource.”

Opponents of the Pebble Mine last year petitioned the EPA to preemptively block the development. EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson called Murkowski Monday to tell her the agency was instead commissioning further study of the region.

U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, commended Environmental Protection Agency officials on their decision to assess the potential impacts of mining and other development projects on the Bristol Bay watershed.  

“The EPA’s decision to withhold judgment on the potential environmental impact of projects, like the Pebble Mine, until all the scientific information has been collected and analyzed is a prudent decision,” Murkowski said.

Murkowski, the ranking member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee and the Interior Appropriations Subcommittee, said the agency’s pronouncement is in keeping with President Obama’s pledge to base his administration’s decisions on the best available science.  

“I am committed to letting the science decide whether mining is right for the Bristol Bay region, but any attempt to prejudge a project before the environmental work is finished would be a troubling signal, as well as a clear violation of the environmental review process,” Murkowski said.

U.S. Senator Mark Begich (D-AK) said in a prepared statement, “I’ve long said that decisions about large-scale development such as the Pebble Mine must be based on sound science and not people’s fears. I’m pleased the EPA agreed with me not to use its preemptive ‘veto’ authority in the Clean Water Act in favor of a process that will inform the debate over this project."

Begich said, “I still want to see more details about this process and how it will proceed. As I told Administrator Lisa Jackson this morning, I hope for a fully transparent process, that invites all sides to the table and involves all the affected stakeholders including fishing groups, tribes, Alaska Native Corporations and local communities. I also want to ensure this is a thorough and robust vetting of the issues involved and not just a bureaucratic exercise."

“Bristol Bay is one of Alaska’s most valuable resources and any proposed development within its watershed deserves no less than a rigorous review," said Begich.

In 2010, nine federally-recognized Bristol Bay tribes petitioned EPA to use its authority under the Clean Water Act to protect Bristol Bay. Their concerns focused on the potential Pebble Mine project. Two other tribes asked EPA to wait for mining projects to submit permit applications before taking action.

Monday's action does not represent any regulatory decision by the agency; instead it represents EPA’s proactive steps to better understand the watershed and gather important scientific information. This information gathered will inform any future guidelines or actions about how to protect the waters and promote sustainable development.

Bristol Bay is an important source of wild Pacific salmon for commercial, recreational, and subsistence users. It produces hundreds of millions of dollars in annual fisheries revenues. The area may be the last major watershed in North America that produces historic numbers of wild salmon. Most of the Bristol Bay watershed is wildlife refuge or park where large development is restricted. EPA’s efforts will focus on those areas that are not protected.

Pebble, located in Southwest Alaska to the north of Lake Iliamna, is one of the largest prospects for copper, gold, molybdenum and silver in the world. The companies working on the mine proposal have invested more than $100 million in research, studies and field work in preparation to begin applying for the necessary environmental permits in 2011 or 2012.

Bristol Bay is also home to the world’s biggest salmon fishery, and it is because of the fishery’s importance to the state’s economy and the traditional subsistence activities of local residents that Murkowski has reserved judgment on whether mining should occur until the environmental assessment is completed.

“I remain staunchly committed to protecting the health of the Bristol Bay watershed, but fishing and subsistence alone are not enough to ensure the survival of our communities,” Murkowski said. “I will not trade fish for minerals, but I believe that companies willing to invest in our region deserve to be given a fair shake to present their proposals.”

Murkowski told Jackson that she hopes this decision will start the process of improving communication between Alaska officials and the EPA on a host of issues, including Shell’s air permit for its Beaufort Sea exploration plan, Healy coal, ConocoPhillips’ CD-5 oil field and marine air pollution issues.

EPA’s assessment is not limited to examining the effects of hard-rock mining projects, but will consider the effects of large-scale development in general.

The assessment, which will focus primarily on the Nushagak and Kvichak watersheds, will be informed by scientific peer review, tribal consultation, federal and state agency participation, as well as public and industry input.

EPA will accept and consider public input during development of the watershed assessment and will continue to work closely with tribal governments, state and federal agencies as we undertake this analysis. 


Sources of News:


Office of U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski

Office of U.S. Sen. Mark Begich


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