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EPA Under Fire - From Environmentalists

While the aggregates and mining industries have an ongoing record of criticizing the work of the EPA, it is strange to hear critical words from the other side.

A group of scientists tasked with reviewing EPA's report on large-scale mining in southwest Alaska expressed concerns about the agency's work. EPA's watershed assessment comes in response to plans for Pebble LP's potential gold and copper mine in the Bristol Bay region, which could become one of the world's largest. Several of the scientists suggested that the agency's report may need revisions to portray the true impacts of a major mine.

"There's been little attention in the assessment to mitigation," said University of Idaho hydrology researcher Charles Slaughter. "In this landscape, restoration takes a long time."

EPA's study outlined scenarios regarding the likelihood of accidents or disasters at a large-scale mine, including the possibility of no failures. "I don't see that 'no failures' is realistic," Slaughter said.

The scientists, who have varying areas of expertise, echoed some of the concerns of fishermen and environmentalists about fish habitats and the long-term management of mine waste.

"I would want all of us to think hard about that particular issue," said Roy Stein, an Ohio State University fisheries and aquatic biology researcher who is also chairing the scientific peer-review panel.

Stein seemed to acknowledge the unease of some EPA critics who say the process is being rushed. "We feel your pain," he said. "The idea of time constraints we understand, and we worked hard to meet those time constraints."

Scientists also questioned EPA's use of a hypothetical mine to develop its assessment. Despite years and millions of dollars of research, Pebble has yet to finalize its mine plan.

"As given, this scenario is neither realistic nor sufficient," said Dirk van Zyl, a University of British Columbia mining expert.

"I don't see any regulatory agency having the appetite to permit a 78-year-life mine," he added. "I don't think a financial institution has the appetite to fund a 78-year-life mine."

Pebble and its backers, including Northern Dynasty Minerals Ltd., blasted EPA's study as inadequate and called it a political effort to block the mine, especially in case President Obama loses his bid for re-election.

Opponents of the mine and supporters of EPA's study, including Trout Unlimited and fishermen's groups, touted scientists on their side of the battle.

"I would again like to commend the EPA for their thorough effort to review all existing, rigorous information available to generate an extremely conservative estimate of risks to fisheries habitat from mining," said salmon ecologist Sarah O'Neal.

"The work regarding the global significance of the Nushagak king salmon is crucial and timely because it documents that as one of the largest king salmon runs in the world," O'Neal added.

The peer reviewers will present a report in the coming weeks that will outline their recommendations for improving EPA's watershed assessment. The agency hopes to have a final draft by the end of the year.