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EPA To Study Impacts On Bristol Bay Watershed

JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) - The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency plans to study how a world-class copper and gold prospect could affect the Bristol Bay watershed and that region's premier commercial sockeye salmon fishery.

The agency said it initiated the study after being petitioned by tribes and others worried about the development of the Pebble Mine - a decision cheered by conservationists Monday. But an official behind the proposed Pebble Mine project and Gov. Sean Parnell questioned the need for the study.

John Shively, chief executive of Pebble Limited Partnership, said it's premature, noting it's not clear yet what any project would look like. He said the proposal is still being formulated and that it's not likely the company will be ready to seek permits this year.

Parnell's spokeswoman, Sharon Leighow, said the administration believes it would be better to wait for the permit applications before deciding what additional data and scientific analyses are needed to make "competent permitting decisions."

She also noted that Parnell has maintained that the fishery will be protected under existing permitting processes.

The issue is divisive, with groups on both sides of the issue running television ads to advocate - with the tone and fervor of a political campaign - for or against a mine.

Critics have said the proposed mine could have a footprint covering 15 square miles, with an open pit and maze of roads and power lines that could fundamentally alter the landscape and disrupt a way of life in rural Alaska. Supporters have acknowledged the development could be large but have countered that it also could last for decades, providing great opportunities for the region, including an infusion of long-term jobs.

The state Legislature last year redirected $750,000 for a third-party "scientific and multidisciplinary study" of a potential development but questions were raised on the best approach to take with the study. An aide to the new chairwoman of the Legislative Council, charged with overseeing the effort, did not immediately know where that effort stood.

EPA Regional Administrator Dennis McLerran said in a statement that gathering information and getting public comments now - before development occurs - "just makes sense."

"Doing this we can be assured that our future decisions are grounded in the best science and information and in touch with the needs of these communities," he said. "We look forward to working with Alaskans to protect and preserve this valuable resource."

EPA said the study of the Bristol Bay watershed will not be limited to mining projects but will "consider the effects of large-scale development in general." It plans to hold two sets of public meetings in Anchorage and in the Bristol Bay region, gathering public comments during each round. A spokeswoman, Marianne Holsman, said the agency hopes to hold the first set in six to nine months, with the goal of presenting preliminary findings of the analysis. The second round would take place about a year from now, following scientific peer review of the assessment.

Leighow said the EPA's information-gathering process hasn't been clearly defined, leaving the administration skeptical that it will "add value." Tim Bristol, director of Trout Unlimited's Alaska program, called it a "great first step toward protecting Bristol Bay from the dangers of Pebble Mine."

Parnell, in a supplemental budget request for the current fiscal year, asked the Legislature for more than $328,000 for litigation "to defend the permitting process on state land."

The budget amendment said the request is to cover the costs of defending state permitting and planning processes in lawsuits tied to numerous projects but centered on Pebble.