Mining for Data in the Bristol Bay Watershed

May 12, 2015 6:00 am PST | Data as a Service

Data reveals stories about both the mundane and the marvelous, informing public debate and policy decisions. However, whether the topic is as routine as bus ridership, or as controversial as a proposed open-pit mine in cherished wilderness, the use of data to assist in the public process depends on access, openness, and transparency.

The Bristol Bay watershed overflows with complex data points. The pristine region covers approximately 40,000 square miles of tundra and wetlands in southwest Alaska, according to the National Wildlife Federation (NWF). “Up to 40 million sockeye salmon return to this watershed each year,” states the NWF, “making it the world’s largest run.” From wildlife counts, geochemical phenomena, and seismic activity, to sports fishing catches, commercial fishery hauls, and the demographics of a more than 4,000-year-old Native subsistence lifestyle, the area is home to many interdependent and at times conflicting interests.

In 2007, Northern Dynasty Minerals partnered with Anglo American to form the Pebble Partnership and secure full mineral rights to the region’s copper, gold, and molybdenum deposit. The partnership proposed an open-pit mine, creating an immense data challenge: Assess the proposal’s environmental impact. Even the mine’s size provokes debate and affects the scope of data collection, with size estimates ranging from at least 2 miles long and 1,700 feet deep to 6.9 square miles and .77 miles deep. The assessment effort involves many data subtopics about current conditions and uses of the area, as well as a need to predict factors that would impact the environment. These factors include mine tailings requiring containment, and the buildings, roads, sewage, and other human factors accompanying an open-pit operation. The public would also need to know about any site-specific mining variables, including cyanide-based ore separating processes.

The open-pit proposal – Pebble Mine, paradoxically understated in its name – poses a politically charged debate, a fascinating data challenge, and a remarkable opportunity for citizens and their elected officials to experience the practical worth of open data.

Salmon vs. Mining: Finding the Balance with Open Data

The Alaska Department of Natural Resources (DNR) believes Pebble Mine would unearth two major deposits of low-grade copper, gold, and molybdenum: Pebble West, “a near surface resource of approximately 4.1 billion metric tons,” and Pebble East, a significantly deeper deposit containing “an estimated resource at 3.4 billion metric tons.”

The size of the deposits promises utility. From dental work to household plumbing to aircraft, the public has a sustained need for the products of the proposed mine. Mining also offers paychecks: Locally, the Pebble Mine, “could create 4,725 jobs during the construction phase, 2,890 during initial production, and 2,750 during subsequent development,” reports the JuneauEmpire.com.

If protected, the region’s fisheries generate an estimated $1.5 billion, comments Joel Reynolds of the National Resources Defense Council in the HuffingtonPost.com. Steady opposition by Alaskan citizens provides another decision factor: In November 2014, Ballot Measure 4 passed easily, with 65 percent of votes in favor of enabling “the Alaska Legislature to ban proposed mining in the Bristol Bay watershed if lawmakers believe the project would endanger wild salmon stocks,” notes Sean Doogan in the Alaska Dispatch News.

Open Data Grows Good Policy

The Bristol Bay controversy highlights the challenge of determining where, when, and how to mine our natural resources. Citizens, elected officials, agency professionals, and corporate representatives need accurate answers to those questions to craft environmentally responsible policies. Those answers are best acquired via collaborative, transparent processes of sound scientific investigation and analysis, followed by open discussion between industry, government agencies, environmental groups, and the public.

Responsible decisions about mining can’t be obtained if the related scientific data and methodology are unclear, if the investigation and analysis can’t be replicated, and if the dataset itself is murky, unmanageable, and closed to the scientific community, government, and the public.

Data Gone Wrong

The proposed open-pit Pebble Mine faces broad public opposition, including a historic coming-together of commercial fisheries, recreational groups, and Native organizations. Part of this stems from distrust of the Pebble Partnership’s data, presenting an open data laboratory on how a closed dataset on a controversial topic affects process.

In its Environmental Baseline Document (EBD), the Pebble Partnership collected, “thousands of pages of information,” on the, “physical, biological, and human environment in Bristol Bay,” comments the Bristol Bay Native Corporation in PebbleWatch.com. However, citizens and scientists raised concerns over its completeness and reliability. The Pebble Partnership responded to calls for scrutiny by hiring the Colorado-based Keystone Center to conduct, “a multi-stage dialogue designed to identify and discuss issues concerning potential development of the mine,” explains GroundTruthTrekking.org.

Instead of building public trust in its data, the Pebble Partnership’s relationship to the Keystone Center generated new concerns. As Dennis Andrew, president of the New Stuyahok Traditional Council, comments in the Alaska Dispatch News, “sound science is built on the foundation of objectivity,” and, “Keystone has a financial relationship with the company that is actively seeking the rights to develop the Pebble Mine.”

The public’s perception of a conflict of interest is misplaced, argues the Keystone Center: “Our purpose is to assess the credibility and sufficiency of Pebble’s extensive scientific and technical studies through independent and objective scientific review and to share that information widely.” However, in the Bristol Bay Times, Carey Restino reports, “Keystone requested all data be submitted in an editable form, and Pebble did not submit it that way.” Restino notes Keystone’s perspective, quoting Todd Bryan of the Keystone Center, “That’s been framed as a double standard and it clearly is not.” Others disagree, notably fisheries researcher Carol Ann Woody. “In order to look at that data, it needs to be in a format that we can assess it in,” Restino quotes Woody.

What’s Next for Bristol Bay?

Answers about the worth, safety, and overall advisability of the proposed Pebble Mine may exist in the Pebble Partnership’s dataset. For now, though, its lack of accessibility prevents stakeholders on all sides from assessing its reliability.

At Socrata, we know open use of reliable data can transform the world. We’re following developments in the Bristol Bay watershed because we believe open access to all data related to the proposed mine will enable stakeholders to make informed, responsible decisions.

In future posts, we’ll dig into the Pebble Partnership’s EBD, as well as the Environmental Protection Agency’s Bristol Bay Assessment, and look at locally affected communities’ perspectives on the proposed Pebble Mine.

 

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