JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) — The developer of a proposed copper and gold mine near the headwaters of a major U.S. salmon fishery in southwest Alaska believes it’s on track to win key federal approvals, with the release of an environmental review suggesting the Pebble Mine would not measurably affect fish numbers.
Critics called the review by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers inadequate. The review “is not the thorough, science-based assessment that we were promised,” Frances Leach, executive director of United Fishermen for Alaska, said in a news release.
A permitting decision is expected later this year. The corps said it will be a joint decision with the U.S. Coast Guard, whose authorization is needed for some proposed bridges. Authorization also is needed by the federal Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement.
Should the mine advance, it would need state approvals. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which under the Obama administration proposed restricting development of the project, could invoke that so-called veto process again if it deemed that necessary.
Pebble opponents, who believe the project got a lifeline under the Trump administration, also expect litigation if a permit is approved and say a change in administration could influence the project’s trajectory.
If Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden wins in November, “we will find ourselves in a very different position relative to the Pebble Mine than we do today,” said Joel Reynolds, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council. Biden was vice president during the Obama administration.
The Pebble Limited Partnership, which is owned by Canada-based Northern Dynasty Minerals Ltd. and working to advance the mine, saw as unfair the attempt to restrict development, which was never finalized and was dropped by EPA last year. The Pebble partnership argued the proposed restrictions were based on hypothetical mine plans and that the project should have a chance to go through the permitting process.
Tom Collier, Pebble partnership CEO, has expressed confidence in the outcome of the corps’ process, saying Pebble believes the planned mine “will be judged to be a project of merit” and receive a favorable permitting decision as early as this summer.
Northern Dynasty, for years, has been looking for a partner, and Pebble sees securing approval from the corps as aiding that effort.
The corps, when it makes a decision, could issue a permit, approve a permit with conditions or issue a denial. Reynolds said a denial wouldn’t prevent Pebble from filing another application, but he said a denial would be the “final nail in the coffin for any further investor interest.”
The corps must wait at least 30 days from the publishing of the environmental review before entering a record of decision.
Pebble is proposing an open-pit mine and related infrastructure in Alaska’s Bristol Bay region. The partnership, on its website, says the mine “will NOT harm the fish” and that the permitting process will validate that. It says the Pebble Mine would create jobs.
Collier said in the environmental review process, the corps was designated the umpire.
“We took our science to the corps and the other side took their science to the corps and the corps was the umpire and they called it our way,” he said.
Tim Bristol, executive director of SalmonState, a group that advocates for salmon and salmon habitat, said the EPA has powers it could invoke. He also predicted litigation.
“I think as people dig into the document they will find that the quality of the science is so lacking, there are so many gaps and so many flaws that’s it’s going to be litigated from here to kingdom come,” he said.
The EPA has said the Bristol Bay watershed supports the largest sockeye salmon fishery in the world. Salmon also is important to Alaska Native communities that rely on it for subsistence.
The corps review states that under normal operations, the alternatives it looked at “would not be expected to have a measurable effect on fish numbers and result in long-term changes to the health of the commercial fisheries in Bristol Bay.”
Under the alternative, identified as Pebble’s preferred option, the direct impact area would include permanent impacts to about 2,230 acres of wetlands and other waters and 105 miles of streams, and there would be temporary or indirect impacts to others, according to the report.
The corps said it made changes based on comments to an earlier released draft and filled gaps identified in the draft, including for wetlands and vegetation data.
Pebble critics say the corps’ review has been rushed and questioned the feasibility of a proposed route that crosses land that Pebble does not have permission to use. The corps previously said it had preliminarily determined a northern transportation route to be part of a “least environmentally damaging practicable alternative.”
The Igiugig Village Council, in a statement, said its lands in the area are not available for use. The council “is committed to the sustainability and health of future generations and Pebble does not fit into our vision for a thriving future,” the statement said.
Mike Heatwole, a Pebble spokesperson, has said Pebble intends to engage with landowners along the northern route and believes it “will be successful in obtaining access to the transportation corridor necessary for the project.”
Collier said work remains on mitigation plans that will be factored in as part of a final decision.