When a mining partnership, having already spent hundreds of millions of dollars to advance its proposed mine, hires a consultant to conduct an "independent scientific review," there is reason to be skeptical.
This is the situation in the Bristol Bay region of southwest Alaska, where the Pebble Limited Partnership (PLP) is seeking to construct a massive gold and copper mine called the Pebble Mine -- at the headwaters of the world's greatest remaining wild salmon fishery. Over the past 18 months, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has conducted and recently issued for public review and comment a Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment, describing the significant potential impacts of large-scale mining in the region. A peer review of the assessment is nearing completion.
This independent, science-based process has been loudly attacked by PLP and other backers of the Pebble Mine. Instead, PLP has hired the Colorado-based Keystone Center to review the project, including a "dialogue" on what an acceptable mine in the region might look like. That process reconvenes next week in Anchorage.
When it does, here are some things to keep in mind:
First, there is no question that Keystone is receiving significant funding from PLP, although Keystone has refused to disclose how much. While it claims independence, Keystone has to concede that its client and financial benefactor is the very partnership that wants to build the Pebble Mine and claims already to have spent over half a billion dollars pursuing it. Assurances of independence and objectivity notwithstanding, this financial relationship presents the appearance of a conflict of interest -- at least.
Second, Keystone has now endorsed the need for an "actual mine plan" at Pebble -- PLP's central message point in attacking EPA's watershed assessment. According to PLP, it is premature for EPA to assess the impacts of large-scale mining in the Bristol Bay watershed in the absence of "an actual mine plan," and it criticizes EPA's use of a "hypothetical mine plan" to represent a range of potential large-scale mining scenarios in the region.
One glaring flaw in this message -- a flaw ignored by Keystone -- is that PLP has already submitted detailed plans both to the state of Alaska in 2006 to secure priority water rights at the mine site and in 2011 to the SEC. To interest potential investors, PLP has widely claimed that mineable ore at Pebble exceeds 10 billion tons -- a claim made with the clear implication that this ore will actually be mined over the life of the project, to the financial benefit of the partnership and its investors and shareholders. PLP's view that an "actual mine plan" (that is, a plan different from the mine plans PLP has already submitted to government agencies) could alter that basic design concept or eliminate the project's risk of harm to the region defies common sense and ignores the empirical record of contamination caused by large-scale mining.
Third, questioning the value of Keystone's dialogue process is in no way inconsistent with a commitment to independent science-based decision-making. Indeed, by overwhelming numbers, public commenters endorsed EPA's assessment process, because it provides the best and most credible forum for scientific review. Notably, PLP has refused to make its raw data available to Keystone or to the public - in disregard of Keystone's own protocol. When EPA requested the data, PLP refused to provide them or even its baseline studies in a timely way -- and then has loudly criticized EPA for proceeding to issue its draft Watershed Assessment without them!
Through its independent assessment, EPA has established that large-scale mining -- even at a level significantly below that contemplated by PLP -- will irreparably harm the ecosystem, endanger the wild salmon fishery, and threaten the economy and culture of the region's communities. The reason that PLP has so strongly opposed EPA's engagement is precisely the reason that Bristol Bay residents have so strongly and consistently supported the agency: EPA has documented, through careful scientific review, that this is the wrong location for the Pebble Mine or any other large-scale mine.
We have urged Keystone to withdraw. Its engagement on the Pebble Mine is unnecessary, tainted by association with PLP, and fundamentally at odds with EPA's assessment process. Keystone and PLP should leave the independent review to EPA.