On Monday - the eve of a major scientific forum on the proposed Pebble Mine, it was revealed that "The Keystone Conference" -- a consultant hired by Pebble -- has lost the services of 2 scientists who were scheduled to be part of that panel.
According to the Associated Press, one of those scientists -- Dr. David Montgomery of the University of Washington -- quit because he was concerned that Pebble had not yet released a detailed blueprint of its proposed copper and gold mine. The proposed mine would be located in the Bristol Bay watershed.
The other scientist, Dr. Daniel Schindler -- also of the University of Washington -- was let go due to "perceived bias".
Rick Halford, a former Alaska Republican State Senator -- and outspoken critic of the proposed mine -- said the loss of the 2 scientists brings into question "The Keystone Conference's" willingness to listen to all points-of-view on the issue of the impact of the mine.
But a spokesman for Keystone dismissed such criticism. Todd Bryan said he regretted the loss of Doctors Mongtomery and Schindler. However, Bryan pointed out, they were only 2 of 20 members of the science panel. He said the work of the forum would go on this week, even without their services.
Bryan said that Montgomery had left the panel because, "he felt that he needed (to see) a mine plan". Channel 2 made repeated calls to Dr. Montgomery, but -- as of publication -- hadn't heard back from him.
However we were able to reach Dr. Daniel Schindler -- the University of Washington scientist who was dismissed from the mine panel.
Schindler said he was let go because he had participated in the writing of two "Op-Ed" pieces on the proposed Pebble Mine. In those pieces, Schindler criticized the Pebble Limited Partnership. He said that the Partnership was engaging in a practice of denigrating a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Preliminary Watershed Assessment -- which had been published last spring.
Schindler praised the watershed assessment as good science.
Today, in a telephone interview from his University of Washington offices Schindler told Channel 2, "If scientists cannot step-up and challenge assertions made by either side of the debate," he said, "sides that claim to be science-based and are clearly not -- if scientists don't step up to challenge those assertions, ya know, who is going to do that?"
However, Keystone indicated that the loss of Dr. Schindler was something the consultant did not want to see happen, but something that National Research Council guidelines more or less mandated.
Todd Bryan said, "We felt that Dr. Schindler really could have done an objective evaluation. We have no doubt that he could have. But because he's written the piece -- this op-ed piece, and one or two other ones -- we felt that a lot of people would dismiss him as as being able to be objective.
Bryan felt that despite the loss of these 2 scientists, the remaining members of the panel would accomplish their mission. He described that mission as learning about the concerns of the public -- and incorporating those concerns into a mine plan that would address them.
Critics worry that the proposed Pebble Mine could grow into one of the largest mines of it's type in North America.
7-year-old filings -- with the Securities and Exchange Commission -- describe an open pit mine that could be a mile deep, and more than 2 miles across. Such a mine would be bigger than all other mines in Alaska combined.
But Pebble says those filings do not, in fact, represent the mine they are planning. A Pebble spokesman said such S-E-C filings are deliberately designed to be all-encompassing. That way a mine operator does not have to go back to repeatedly ask for permission every time there's an alteration.
The Pebble Limited Partnership says that a mine of the size that the S-E-C filings suggest would take a full century to build. Yet Pebble can only apply for a 20-year-permit. The Pebble Limited Partnership says that 20-year-permit would be fore a mine nowhere near the size indicated in the S-E-C filings. .
Nevertheless, everyone agrees the proposed mine would sit in the middle of the Bristol Bay Watershed -- home to one of the greatest wild salmon runs in all of the world. Many believe that the reason that more that some 30 million salmon return to the watershed each year is precisely because it's so pristine.
A gold and copper mine would require a tailings pond to be built and maintained in perpetuity -- in order to protect that watershed.
Again, Pebble says it does not have a specific mine plan yet, but the filings with the S-E-C indicate that such a tailings pond could be 700 feet deep, several miles across, and could contain billions of tons of mine waste. An E-P-A scientist said in August that there's evidence those tailings could remain toxic anywhere from 10,000 to 40,000 years.
The E.P.A has the power shut down Pebble's plans before the mine ever gets a permit from the state of Alaska. And while the mine is located on state land, under the Federal Clean Water Act, the waters that flow through it remain under the protection of the federal government.
If Pebble cannot demonstrate that it can mine the area without causing significant harm to those waters -- the E.P.A could put a halt the project.
In the meantime, "The Keystone Conference Forum" gets underway at the Library of the University of Alaska Anchorage tomorrow (Tuesday) at 8:30 in the morning. It is only open to members of the public who have pre-registered for it.
However, Keystone says the conference will be carried live on its website.
It will last for a total of 6 days. That's 3 days this week, and 3 days next week.
The science panel expects to deliver its report by year's end.
Contact Dan Fiorucci