The Army Corps of Engineers signaled yesterday it would permit a gargantuan copper and gold mine proposed in southwest Alaska, finding the project would have no measurable impact on Bristol Bay's famed salmon fishery.
The environmental impact statement says the 8,390-acre Pebble mine "would not be expected to have a measurable effect" on fish populations in Bristol Bay but would damage thousands of acres of wetlands and more than 100 miles of streams.
The Army Corps will use the final EIS to determine whether to issue a dredge-and-fill permit under the Clean Water Act.
The Pebble Partnership has maintained that the 13-square-mile project wouldn't significantly affect 50 million or so salmon in the bay.
Pebble CEO Tom Collier lauded the Army Corps' findings and railed against groups he said have led a "misinformation campaign" to highlight effects the mine could have on the surrounding environment and local culture.
"The final EIS for Pebble unequivocally shows it can be developed without harming salmon populations," Collier said in a statement.
From 2011 to 2016, the fishery supplied as much as 11% of the global wild salmon harvests.
A coalition of Alaska Native tribes and fishery conservation groups have strongly opposed the mine proposal since Northern Dynasty Minerals Ltd., Pebble's publicly traded Canadian parent company, began eyeing the copper and gold deposit 200 miles southwest of Anchorage 15 years ago.
Local leaders including United Tribes of Bristol Bay Director Alannah Hurley and Bristol Bay Native Association President Ralph Anderson released a joint statement after an initial read of the extensive document.
"The final EIS completely fails to adequately assess the impacts of Pebble on Bristol Bay's waters, salmon and people," they said. "This comes as no surprise to the people of Bristol Bay who have been silenced and steam-rolled throughout the two-and-a-half-year process that advanced at unprecedented speeds."
Pebble's top alternative consists of an open pit mine, two tailings facilities, a natural gas pipeline, a terrestrial transportation route north of Iliamna Lake and a port on Cook Inlet. The company plans to mine 1.4 billion tons of ore over a 20-year period.
The mineral deposit is in the North Fork Koktuli River and South Fork Koktuli River watersheds. Those rivers eventually join the Nushagak River, which flows into Bristol Bay about 200 miles downstream.
More than 20 species of fish live in the area the Army Corps is analyzing, including chinook, sockeye and coho salmon. The review says most spawning occurs 20 miles downstream from the mine.
The mine site itself "would permanently remove approximately 99 miles of streambed habitat" in the North Fork Koktuli River and South Fork Koktuli River drainages, displacing and killing fish living there.
The transportation route and natural gas pipeline would destroy a further 5.7 miles of stream habitat and 7.7 acres of wetlands.
Overall, the project would affect 3,005 acres of wetlands including 112 miles of streams, according to the EIS.
The Bristol Bay fishery, though, could escape unscathed under normal mining operations, according to the Army Corps.
"The alternatives 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," the EIS executive summary says.
The mine's foes derided the draft EIS last summer in part because it didn't consider the effect of a total tailings dam failure (Greenwire, Feb. 27, 2019).
Complete dam failures at mines are rare events that can have catastrophic results. When a mine dam in Brazil last year gave way, it killed 250 people and dumped heavy metals into the Paraopeba River (Greenwire, Jan. 22).
The dam in that disaster was built in what's known as the upstream method. Pebble's top choice is a flow-through dam, which lets water drain through tailings rather than submerging them. The developer plans to store the more dangerous and acidic pyritic tailings in a separate facility.
With water allowed to seep through and pyritic tailings kept separately, Collier said, a breach of the flow-through dam would have a less consequential effect.
The EIS considers a scenario where an earthquake causes a total release of 1.6 million cubic feet of tailings slurry into the North Fork Koktuli River drainage over a six-hour period. With a recovery plan in place, elevated metals levels downstream would last one week at most, the review says.
A tailings breach would cause high metals levels for several weeks, while neither scenario would have measurable impacts to groundwater. Other, more unlikely scenarios didn't warrant analysis, the EIS says.
"Impacts analysis in an EIS does not benefit from evaluation of spill scenarios that are so remotely improbable that the risk presented is negligible," it says.
Pebble's 20-year mine plan would allow it to access only a portion of the copper and gold deposit there. The EIS also considers the prospect of a 78-year mine, for which Pebble has not applied.
"Once a first-phase mine is developed with access roads and a power plant, it is quite likely that a much larger mining district will eventually result, which would be devastating to salmon resources in the central part of the Bristol Bay watershed," said Dennis McLerran, former administrator of EPA's Region 10 office in Seattle.
Several question linger about the future of the Pebble mine.
While the EIS is the culmination of the review of the Pebble mine plan under the National Environmental Policy Act, it's not a permit. The Army Corps will finalize the record of decision "later this year," Alaska District regulatory chief David Hobbie said.
EPA has had an evolving view of Pebble and could still intervene using its power under the Clean Water Act.
In 2014, EPA issued a rare preemptive "veto" of large-scale mining in the region. Based on hypothetical scenarios, the agency's Bristol Bay watershed assessment warned of significant risks a mine poses to the unparalleled ecosystem.
The proposed veto outraged Pebble, and the company sought to have it overturned in the courts. The parties reached a settlement in 2017 allowing Pebble to apply for a wetlands permit. EPA officially dropped the proposed veto last year, and lawsuits soon followed, one of which Trout Unlimited is still litigating (E&E News PM, June 2).
EPA retains veto power even if the Army Corps approves the project. EPA's stance could further evolve if Democrat Joe Biden wins the November presidential election.
"There has never been a 404(c) action that wasn't highly political," said Matt Schweisberg, former chief of the wetlands protection program for EPA Region 1.
Records of decision often trigger lawsuits leaving controversial projects in judicial limbo for years.
The Rosemont copper project in Arizona, for instance, gained the stamp of approval from the Forest Service in 2017.
Tribes and environmental groups sued over Rosemont, claiming violations of numerous laws including NEPA, the Clean Water Act and the Administrative Procedure Act. Rosemont Copper Co. is now appealing a judge's ruling to block the mine.
Pebble also faces financial hurdles. Northern Dynasty, its parent company, is short on cash. Major partners have come and gone over the course of their journey to unlock the gold and copper deposit. One, Anglo American PLC, sank half a billion dollars into the project before bowing out in 2013 (Greenwire, June 12).
Northern Dynasty has taken to the stock market to raise money, but Collier said investors will be more willing to invest in the project if it gains a permit.
Pebble must also submit a compensatory mitigation plan designed to offset the mine's wetlands destruction. And a state permitting process lasting about three years also lies ahead.
"Pebble mine is a failed investment and an environmental disaster waiting to happen, and we will challenge it at every step," said Joel Reynolds, senior attorney at the Natural Resource Defense Council.
Reporter Hannah Northey contributed.
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