Data Visualizations: Could They Save Bristol Bay?
While Northern Dynasty Minerals acquired mineral rights to 378,600 acres of Alaska-owned wilderness in the Bristol Bay Watershed, most of the state’s citizens were preoccupied with living their lives — relying on their representative government and agencies to keep watch over land use and public process.
Alaskans who live right in the area — including subsistence-based Native communities and families whose incomes depend on commercial fisheries — didn’t receive dynamic maps showing their salmon spawning streams, hunting grounds, and groundwater basins overlaid with a proposed open pit mine. They didn’t get snappy apps letting them calculate income from potential mining jobs versus income from current fisheries jobs, numbers of sockeye salmon in the streams to be mined versus tons of copper to be unearthed, or potential health impacts on their communities from mine pollution.
What Alaskans — and the world — did receive was a big load of data.
From Securities Filings to Locked PDFs
Corporations are required by law to be completely straightforward with potential investors. As part of that requirement, in 2011 Northern Dynasty Minerals filed what’s known as the Wardrop report, a 529-page evaluation and potential plan for an open pit mine in the watershed. For experienced data enthusiasts with an understanding of mining terms who would 1) think to search Canada’s SEDAR database and 2) know what to look for (technical report NI 43-101 of March 2011) and 3) know how to interpret what they find, that works great.
Scientists like Kendra Zamzow, an environmental geochemist with the Center for Science in Public Participation, is one of the data enthusiasts who read and understood the Wardrop report. “It was a mine plan, in black and white, for investors,’” Zamzow remarks.
Northern Dynasty Minerals released another report in 2012, through its Pebble Limited Partnership (PLP): the Environmental Baseline Document (EBD). At 20,000+ pages of pdfs, it’s downloadable chapter by chapter, not machine-readable — meaning, not even experienced researchers like Zamzow and her colleagues could “look at it and manipulate it and examine it and make our own conclusions,” Zamzow explains. She concedes, “I could see from their perspective they don’t want the data misused or taken out of context,” but adds, “It’s not only in PDF, but locked — so you can’t even put notes to yourself while you’re reading it.”
Public Process in a Data Bog
Zamzow gives PLP full credit for reaching out to local communities and engaging them in meetings to share the findings of the EBD. PLP gave communities “a public forum to ask questions, to say what they wanted to say,” Zamzow says. Similarly, she and her fellow researchers went to villages in groups of three, “to give our perspective,” including “risks we’ve seen elsewhere in Alaska and the Lower 48.”
Most people, though, can best make use of data when it’s delivered like a pizza: how, when, and where they want. “We all tried — Pebble and us both — to make it understandable to the general public,” Zamzow believes, but if data deliverers “can’t sit there and talk with people and get their feedback,” Zamzow says, “I don’t think you have a very good information exchange.”
Sam Snyder, a science team and media coordinator who’s worked with Trout Unlimited to address environmental concerns about Bristol Bay and the proposed mine, agrees. “Data is only so good as we can understand it,” Snyder states, calling out the need to leverage data to help the public answer the question, “Should a mine exist in this place?”
EPA Watershed Assessment Brings Clarity, Accessibility
In 2014 the EPA released its Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment (BBWA), in response to requests from federally recognized Alaskan Native tribes and other members of the public to evaluate the Pebble proposal.
Zamzow, the environmental geochemist, explains the BBWA was sensibly and factually based on Northern Dynasty’s Wardop own report (the PLP securities filing). EPA recognized the Wardrop report for what it was — a mine plan — and used that instead of the vaguer and less technical documents PLP had published elsewhere. The Wardrop report, buried in a securities database, was brought to light by the EPA’s tenacious, open, scrutinizing work in the BBWA. Zamzow speculates Northern Dynasty caused its own downfall with the Wardrop report. “If Northern Dynasty had never written that report, EPA might not have been able to write their assessment. All of it was in there,” she recalls, including how much of the watershed would be dug up, size of sewage treatment plants, and placement of tailings containment structures.
In addition to shining a bright spotlight on PLP’s plan for a vast open pit mine, the EPA’s meticulous BBWA also lays out the how, why, and when of EPA’s public engagement efforts, as well as its development process of the assessment itself — what Trout Unlimited’s Snyder describes as fantastically transparent work to “create the greatest book report and science report ever made.”
The Silver Lining of Civic Engagement
A DIY open data bright spot in the continuing Pebble controversy is the Bristol Bay Native Corporation (BBNC). Its mission, “To be a corporation that protects the past, present and future of the Natives from Bristol Bay,” shines in its Pebble Watch project.
Online and available to all, the endeavor provides a model for civic engagement needed by communities all over the world. “Pebble Watch is an impartial, educational and fact-based initiative of the BBNC Land Department to disseminate information regarding the proposed Pebble mine project,” states BBNC. With its fact sheets, explanations of data and permitting processes, monitoring of legal wrangling, and staff availability, Pebble Watch enables its stakeholders to analyze for themselves the proposed mine’s potential impact on their region, homes, and future.