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EPA's Draft Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment Report Found Inadequate

Late last week, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released the final judgment of a panel of independent experts retained to review its work to date on the Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment (BBWA), in a report entitled 'External Peer Review of EPA's Draft Document: An Assessment of Potential Mining Impacts on Salmon Ecosystems of Bristol Bay, Alaska."

In a wide-ranging critique of the draft report's methodology and findings, Peer Review Panelists called the EPA's effort to evaluate the effects of a 'hypothetical mining scenario' on the water, fish, wildlife and cultural resources of Southwest Alaska "inadequate," "premature," "unreasonable," "suspect" and "misleading." Reviewers consistently stated it is not possible to fully assess the effects of a project like the proposed Pebble mine in a region like Bristol Bay in the absence of a definitive mine plan.

"The authors have attempted to develop a hypothetical mine and attempted to assess possible environmental effects associated with mine development, operation, and closure," said Dr. William Stubblefield, a senior professor at Oregon State University and an expert in environmental toxicology. "Although interesting, the potential reality of the assessment is somewhat questionable. It is also unclear why EPA undertook this evaluation, given that a more realistic assessment could probably have been conducted once an actual mine was proposed and greater detail about operational parameters available."

The EPA initiated the BBWA in February 2011 in response to requests from certain opponents of the Pebble Project to use its power under section 404c of the US Clean Water Act to veto the project prior to the Pebble Limited Partnership (the "Pebble Partnership" or "PLP") submitting a proposed development plan or applying for permits. After reducing the scope of its assessment on a number of occasions, the federal agency completed the draft BBWA report in just over a year, where previous EPA assessments of other watersheds have taken 4 - 9 years to study significantly smaller areas of land.

In addition to questioning the reasonableness of EPA efforts to assess the effects of a project that has not yet been defined, a series of other criticisms were consistently raised by Peer Review Panelists:

  • the draft BBWA report suffers from a lack of sufficient data and information to support the conclusions reached, yet the report authors in many cases overlooked the voluminous site-specific data provided by PLP as part of its 'Environmental Baseline Document'
  • the draft BBWA report over-estimates both the likelihood and consequence of a range of potential systems and operational failures;
  • the draft BBWA report presents inappropriate and misleading case studies;
  • the 'hypothetical mining scenario' presented in the draft BBWA does not employ 'best mining practices', or the alternative engineering approaches, environmental safeguards and other mitigation strategies commonly used at modern mines to avoid environmental effects.

"The biggest uncertainty/variability in the evaluation of a hypothetical project is associated with the potential range of design features, waste management options and operational details that could be included," said Dr. Dirk van Zyl, University of British Columbia professor of mine engineering and noted expert on sustainable mineral development. "This was completely overlooked in the analysis by assuming a specific design for the hypothetical mine. The failure likelihoods and consequences on salmonid fish are very dependent on the assumptions for the hypothetical mine. These uncertainties are neither clearly identified nor included in the evaluations. This is a major shortcoming of the present analysis."

Northern Dynasty Minerals Ltd. ("Northern Dynasty" or the "Company") (TSX: NDM; NYSE MKT: NAK) President & CEO Ron Thiessen noted that the summary portions of the Peer Review report actually understate the criticisms of the 12 individual scientists who were on the Peer Review Panel. He said it is clear that EPA has a significant amount of revision to do if the Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment is to provide a meaningful analysis of the potential effects of hard rock mining in Southwest Alaska. With the Pebble Partnership expected to finalize its development plans for Pebble next year, and to initiate federal and state permitting under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), Thiessen suggested that EPA should shelve the draft BBWA report, not expend the many millions of dollars and possibly years necessary to complete it, and prepare to participate in the NEPA review of Pebble.

"The Pebble Project has the potential to triple America's strategic reserves of copper and more than double her strategic reserves of gold," Thiessen said. "It could also nearly double American reserves of molybdenum, allowing the US to rival China as a worldwide leader in the production of this critical metal used to harden steel for US manufacturing and construction industries.

"So this is an important project for Alaska and for the country, in terms of its ability to generate massive capital investment, job creation, government revenue and the raw materials to support America's manufacturing industries. It should be reviewed and assessed through the NEPA permitting process like every other major project development in the United States. The EPA's flawed and rushed Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment process should be shelved now."


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