Opponents of Alaska's Pebble mine cry foul over developer's scientific review

The group aiming to develop a giant copper and gold mine in the Bristol Bay area is vetting the scientific studies that underlay its work, turning to a Colorado-based non-profit with expertise in environmental conflict resolution. But critics of the proposed Pebble mine are having little of it.

Six days of scientific review meetings organized by the Keystone Center kicked off Tuesday in Anchorage at the Consortium Library on the University of Alaska Anchorage campus. Keystone describes the effort as an in-depth, objective review of Pebble's science. Mine opponents counter that the studies are lacking and that the effort is mainly designed to sway public opinion.

As is often the case with Pebble, controversy erupted even before the sessions began.

Keystone removed one fisheries scientist for expressing concerns in a Web opinion piece about whether the mine could operate without harming valuable wild salmon runs. And another researcher withdrew, saying Pebble's studies could not be adequately assessed without a mine development plan.

Pebble is funding Keystone's work and over the past four years has paid it something under $1 million, much of that for travel expenses, Todd Bryan, who is leading Keystone's work on Pebble, said in an interview.

The scientists doing the reviews, mainly university professors and government researchers, are all unpaid and reimbursement of their travel costs is limited to federal rates, Bryan told a crowd of at least 100 people who packed the meeting room Tuesday. Reviewers must be unpaid, and unbiased, to meet standards set by the National Research Council, a sister institution to the National Academy of Sciences, Bryan said.

Mine opponents still contend the scientific reviews are bought and paid for by Pebble and say the process may be fatally flawed as evidenced by the upheaval on the review panels.

Bristol Bay Native Corp. chairman Joseph Chythlook told a panel of geologists that he's been a commercial fisherman most of his life and recently retired from a staff position with the state boards of fish and game. He's no expert on rocks but does understand the process, he said.

"Keystone's process was started by the very folks who want to develop this mine. This first of all calls into question how objective this process may be," Chythlook said. He said he suspects Pebble has already crafted multiple mine plans but won't make them public.

Thomas Tilden, chief of the Curyung Tribal Council and a fisherman, told the scientists that local residents have seen a sharp decline in salmon numbers since Pebble began drilling exploration holes -- some 1,200 so far. He noted that the soils in the region are acidic and questioned whether the runoff from an area with disturbed soils could be harming salmon.

Pebble consultant Craig Nistor responded that Pebble crews are committed to managing runoff and limiting soil disturbance, and that all traffic is by helicopter, not road.

One of the scientists on the panel, geologist Chris Waythomas of the U.S. Geological Survey, added that soils are just slightly more acidic that neutral, and that the acid levels come from the natural breakdown of organic matter.

Tilden, who lives in Dillingham, was not convinced. During a lunch break, he stood on a stepladder and told a crowd of protestors gathered outside the library that he was not comfortable with the Keystone process.

"The question always boils down to -- can mining and salmon co-exist. What do you think?" he asked the protesters.

"No!" they shouted.

"No, no, no, no," he told them. "Not no, hell no!"

The protestors waved anti-Pebble signs, made short speeches and grilled and gobbled up Bristol Bay sockeyes caught on a Naknek River setnet site.

"Tasting is believing when it comes to Bristol Bay," said Melanie Brown, a setnetter who wore waders and Xtratuf boots as she spoke to the crowd.

Chythlook told the protesters that Bristol Bay Native Corporation decided in 2009 to fight the mine, and would stand with residents "all the way."

Many who attended the Keystone sessions came from the Bristol Bay region. Pebble paid for members of its elders committee to attend, and Nunamta Auluketsai, an environmental group that includes nine village corporations, paid for some Pebble opponents to come. None of the scientific review meetings are taking place in the Bristol Bay region, a sore point.

Chythlook, Tilden and other Bristol Bay residents said they are putting their faith in a separate study by the Environmental Protection Agency that concluded a large mine like Pebble would ultimately damage salmon streams. The EPA held informational meetings about its study-- which also is undergoing review by independent scientists -- in Dillingham, Naknek, Levelock, Igiugig, Nondalton and New Stuyahok, as well as Anchorage and Seattle.

Outside of the meeting room, Nondalton tribal administrator Clara Trefon came across Bryan, of Keystone, and Mike Heatwole, a Pebble spokesman, and let loose with her frustration.

"We're ground zero. We're 12 miles from the mine. We have no more caribou. We have no moose -- nobody got moose this year," Trefon said.

She asked Bryan to come to the village and present the scientific information-- in a way that people can relate to.

"I sat there and listened all morning, and they used nothing but big words that none of us could understand. And you are supposed to be explaining it to us?" she said.

Bryan said Keystone is considering whether to hold meetings in the Bristol Bay region. It did interviews and held extensive meetings in the region in 2008 and 2009, during an earlier phase of its Pebble work.

As to whether Pebble's exploration work has harmed fish, wildlife or water quality, a Superior Court judge who presided over a 10-day trial in December 2010 found there was no evidence of permanent damage.

Pebble still is working on its mine plan, and before it even applies for its major permits, it will seek input from Bristol Bay residents, Heatwole said.

The researchers are reviewing Pebble's baseline studies of the region's geology, hydrology, seismic and volcanic risks, fish, wildlife, habitat, and socioeconomic and cultural dimensions. Keystone will present the critiques in a report later this year. Pebble Limited Partnership chief executive John Shively said the information will help shape further study.

Once there is a mine plan, Keystone will convene another scientific panel to review it, Bryan said.

In a sense, he said, Keystone is conducting an experiment. Can an organization hired by a big mine developer manage an objective review of the developer's scientific studies?

"And the other question that's on the table is, is anybody going to believe it?"

If stakeholders walk away better informed, the process worked, he said.

"We are not trying to change anybody's minds about anything," Bryan said. "I don't think we could do that if we tried."

The meetings continue Wednesday and Thursday, then resume next week.