Homer Alaska - News

Story last updated at 5:05 PM on Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Pebble science bought, not censored

Representatives of partnership, consultants address concerns, talk about mounds of data

By McKibben Jackinsky
Staff Writer

How do you squeeze into three hours five years of collected data that fill more than 20,000 pages of an environmental baseline document, with a 426-page technical summary and a price tag of $120 million?

That was the task Friday when representatives of the Pebble Partnership and four environmental consultants were in Homer to give public presentations on the information contained in the document. More than 35 people gathered in the Homer City Council chambers from noon to 3 p.m. to listen to the presentations and ask questions about the Pebble deposit, a large copper, gold and molybdenum discovery about 17 miles north of Iliamna Lake. Applying for permits the project will require is anticipated to begin by year's end.

After learning the presentation was being given in Soldotna, Bill Smith, who represents Homer on the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly, asked for it to be repeated in Homer. He had one question for the consultants who represented the 100 independent scientists and researchers involved in development of the environmental baseline document.

"A lot of people have the perception that scientists are like lawyers, a mouthpiece for hire. I want to give them a chance to address that, whether they were asked by the Pebble Project to report or change or not report on data," said Smith.

Addressing Smith's question, Mike Heatwole, vice president of public affairs for the Pebble Partnership said, "We are very fortunate to have these experts in their field. When we undertook to characterize the environment, we went out and hired what we thought were the best of the best. ... Did we pay for the science? Yes, absolutely. That's how development projects are done. You need the science in order to characterize the environment around you. It's part of the NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) process. "

Also addressing Smith's question was MaryLou Keefe of RD Resources, one of the lead fish scientists to collect data for the environmental baseline document.

"I have never been asked by anyone at Pebble to not disclose information or to change my opinion or not write anything I felt was true," said Keefe.

Fish studies for the document included identifying rivers and river habitats, walking more than 150 miles of tributaries to identify other features, understanding off-channel areas, conducting fish sampling at more than 3,000 sites and identifying species of fish in the north and south forks of the Koktuli River and Upper Talarik Creek. Tagged fish were tracked over a two-year period.

"Is there enough resource out there for this mine to go in? Are you nervous in your gut about this at all?" a member of the audience asked Keefe.

In response, she noted that salmon head for the ocean sometime during the first three years of their life and are in the ocean from two to six years, which creates a window of time should a catastrophic event occur.

"It was three years after Mount St. Helens before they saw salmon coming back," said Keefe.

Hugh McCreadie of Piteau Consulting said hydrology data was collected at 29 measuring stations in the proposed mine's area, with a focus on the watersheds of the north and south forks of the Koktuli River and Upper Talarik Creek.

"The intent of the Pebble Partnership is to develop a project that does not have a significant impact on the environment," said McCreadie.

Questioned about possible negative impacts, especially on the Bristol Bay fishery, Heatwole spoke up.

"We have to demonstrate we're not going to have a negative impact on the fishery," he said, turning to positive impacts a mining operation the size of Pebble could have. "Communities closest to the mine site don't have a lot of economic opportunities. In the time I've been on the project, the school at Pedro Bay closed because it hit the 10-student minimum. Five other schools within the (Lake and Peninsula Borough) are on the watch list for funding. ... Folks who are closest (to the mine) have expressed interest in at least knowing the full opportunity this development has for that part of Alaska."

Al Trbovich of SLR gave an overview of "rigorous" air quality monitoring that included readings taken every hour, 365 days a year. Winds in the Pebble deposit area were noted as high as 90 miles per hour, with gusts of 120 mph, and temperatures that were "downright chilly in the winter."

Terry Schick of ABR gave a condensed overview of the terrestrial and marine wildlife studies conducted.

"Using your analysis, what do you think is the most threatened by this project?" Schick was asked.

"Well, there's certain things that will be displaced," said Schick. "But the question is how significant is that displacement. ... What needs to be done is an impact assessment."

Jason Gray, Pebble's production coordinator of the EBD, said the objective of the 53-chapter document was to "understand the environment surrounding the deposit, to provide input for mine planning and to provide baseline characterization for the NEPA environmental impact statement." The area studied was approximately 390 square miles.

Questioned about the research into seismic hazards in the area, Heatwole pointed to the 2010 earthquake in Chile which caused "massive destruction to civilian infrastructure," but not to the country's mining operations.

Asked whether the Pebble Partnership supported the Environmental Protection Agency's Bristol Bay watershed assessment, Heatwole said, "No. We do not support it at all."

The purpose of EPA's study, according to the agency's website, is to help understand how large-scale development could affect water quality and the salmon fishery.

"It's a timing matter," said Heatwole. "Would you support being denied a permit before you'd even applied for it?"

Heatwole said he is often asked at what stage of the project the public should give input.

"I council them to be involved during the scoping, during the permitting process. That's where you shape what you want governmental agencies to take into consideration when doing the environmental impact statement," said Heatwole. "Written testimony, emails, phone calls, all of that."

Since February, portions of the EBD have been presented in 13 communities, nine of them in the Bristol Bay region. Twelve more presentations are scheduled by the end of April.

Pebble Project's environmental baseline document can be found in its entirety on the web at www.pebbleresearch.com.

McKibben Jackinsky can be reached at mckibben.jackinsky@homernews.com.