After years of study, a comprehensive environmental review by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Army Corps) of the proposed Pebble mine in southwest Alaska, upstream of a major U.S. salmon fishery, found the mine would not significantly impact fish numbers or reproduction.
With this review in hand, Pebble Limited Partnership (PLP), the developer of the proposed copper and gold mine, is cautiously optimistic it will be able to secure the federal and state permits necessary to begin developing the mine and its related infrastructure.
Mine’s Background and Data
If constructed, during its proposed 20-year operating life, PLP estimates the mine will produce 70 million tons of gold, molybdenum and copper ore annually, producing minerals worth over $500 billion over the life of the mine.
The facility will consist of a 1,970 feet deep pit spanning 13 miles, and require the construction of a 270-megawatt power plant, a natural gas pipeline, 82-mile double-lane road, as well as a complex of storage facilities and the dredging of a port at Iliamna Bay.
Currently, salmon fishing is the main source of employment and income in the area, with the commercial, recreational, and subsistence salmon fisheries generating $1.4 billion annually.
PLP purchased the property on which the Pebble Mine would be constructed in 2001.
In 2012, under then-president Barack Obama, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued an assessment of the expected effects of a hypothetical mine near Iliamna, Alaska on salmon populations in Bristol Bay, more than 200 miles away. That was the first time in history EPA issued an assessment before receiving any actual mining proposal.
PLP objected to EPA’s assessment, pointing out the assumptions in its hypothetical mining project did not account for actual environmental technologies the company would deploy at the Pebble site to conduct mining, or the steps it would take to guarantee environmental protections.
Nevertheless, in 2014 EPA issued a decision blocking Army Corps from allowing PLP to begin the formal permitting process.
PLP sued in federal court, arguing EPA had not followed proper procedures. In May 2017, now operating under the Trump administration, the agency settled the lawsuit with the company, and allowed it to begin the permitting process.
PLP presented several options for developing the mine and its related infrastructure to the Army Corps for consideration. The Army Corps’ analysis of the company’s preferred option indicates it would directly impact or alter approximately 2,230 acres of wetlands and 105 miles of streams and temporarily or indirectly affect a limited amount of other lands and waters.
PLP filled in gaps to its environmental impact statement and altered its proposal to account for concerns raised by the Army Corp in response to public comments about the impacts on vegetation and wetlands in the region.
After reviewing the revised proposals, the Army Corps on July 24 issued a final analysis of the project concluding, under normal operations, the mine “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.”
Presenting the Science
After examining the science, the Army Corps agreed with PLP the mine could be developed safely without harming the region’s salmon fishery, said Tom Collier, PLP CEO.
“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,” said Collier, according to the Associated Press.
The Army Corps is required to wait 30 days after the publication of the final notice in the federal register before considering PLP’s permit. The Army Corps says any decision concerning whether to issue a permit for PLP to begin construction would be made in conjunction with the U.S. Coast Guard, who would have to authorize some proposed bridges, and with the federal Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement.
Even with these permits in hand, before PLP can begin operations it must secure state permits and rights of way for the project’s pipelines and road system.
As a backstop, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency could, with appropriate legal justification, intervene and block any permits issued.
Collier says he expects to be able to secure all the permits and begin construction by 2024.
The completion of the federal environmental review was “the most significant day in the 15-year history of the Pebble Project,” Collier told the Washington Post (Post)
Battle Not Over
A coalition of local residents and national environmental groups have already objected to the Army Corps’ review and have said they will challenge the permit in court. In addition, if a Democrat wins the Presidency in the 2020 election, federal agencies could change course once again and rescind any permits already issued or block those still outstanding.
In an interview with the Post, Collier, who served as Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt’s chief of staff during the Clinton administration, said, should Democrats win the Presidency, the record assembled by PLP should convince a Democratic administration of the safety and merits of the project.
“I believe we’ll be able to convince a Biden administration, if that’s what we have, that this is an appropriate project and move ahead,” Collier told the Post. “It’s not a document that justifies a veto, it’s a document that justifies a permit.
“They’re not going to be able to just flip a switch and turn that around,” said Collier.
Collier stressed the project as approved by the Army Corp “dramatically different” from the one proposed during the Obama administration, being both smaller in size and including additional safeguards to prevent any chance of pollution from the mining process or its stored waste.
“We took a lot of environmental risk out of this project,” Collier said.
‘New Standard for Environmental Harmony’
The Pebble mine will use the latest technology and was developed in consultation with local indigenous peoples to ensure any environmental impacts will be minimal, says James Taylor, director of the Arthur B. Robinson Center for Climate and Environmental Policy at The Heartland Institute.
“The Pebble Mine will set a new standard for environmental harmony among mining facilities,” said Taylor. “The developers spared no expense deploying state-of-the-art environmental mitigation measures.
“In addition, PLP engaged with, listened to, and worked with the local indigenous communities throughout the process and, as a result, many of the local indigenous communities and peoples support the mining plan as an environmentally responsible way of boosting local living standards,” Taylor said.
Sterling Burnett, Ph.D. (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the managing editor of Environment & Climate News.