The Washington Post broke the news this morning that the US Army Corps of Engineers approved the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) prepared in advance of approval of the Pebble Mine in Alaska’s Bristol Bay. The gigantic mining project that would include several dammed waterways to host tailing ponds, hundreds of miles of gas pipelines, and a deepwater shipping port built 80 miles from the mine, “would not be expected to have a measurable effect on fish numbers,” in the area, according the US Army.
The proposed mine sits directly in the watershed of what is perhaps the world’s greatest, and largely intact, salmon fishery
For two decades the proposed mine has seesawed between approval and blockages. The Obama Administration worked to block the mine’s approval in 2014. The Trump Administration’s pro-industry vision has fast-tracked extractive projects like the Pebble Mine.
The planned project is massive.
The mining pit itself would open over one square mile of earth, and be dug up to a third of a mile deep. To run the operation, a 270-megawatt power plant would be built, powered by natural gas, itself requiring massive infrastructure. Then there would be more than 80 miles of highway to connect the mine to the port that would be dredged in Iliamna Bay.
Gold, copper, and other rare and valuable minerals are the target of the mine’s proposed ownership group, Northern Dynasty Minerals. The plan is to harvest all available minerals and metals over two decades, raking in over $300 billion. Northern Dynasty has said the project will employ some 1,000 workers, many of them local, and spend money revamping infrastructure in nearby, isolated Iliamna villages. It would also hand out $3 million in cash dividends to local residents in an area that has missed out on the oil wealth that has funded other small, rural communities in other parts of the state.
“They didn’t see Iliamna surviving without a project like Pebble,” said Lisa Reimers, of the corporation, Iliamna Natives Ltd, speaking of her elders who have worried that their community needs an injection of funds. “We don’t see Pebble damaging the area like everybody claims,” she said. “Pebble has to do it right because there are so many people watching them.”
Environmental and conservation groups are deeply concerned.
“The Pebble Mine would threaten the world’s greatest wild salmon fishery, which generates $1.5 billion in annual revenue and 14,000 jobs,” said the NRDC in a statement. “Salmon have sustained Bristol Bay subsistence culture, community, and identity of Alaska Natives for millennia. It’s no wonder that the people of Bristol Bay and Alaska overwhelmingly oppose it.”
State polls throughout Alaska have shown that most residents do not approve of the mine; the disapproval grows stronger the closer the residents live. The Bristol Bay Native Corporation, for instance, strongly opposes the mine.
“We’ve not given Pebble permission to utilize those or impact those,” Daniel Cheyette, the corporation’s vice president for land and resources, said of the roads and pipelines needed for the project. “We’ve been fighting this for a long time and will continue to fight it.”
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service scientists, in evaluating the proposed mine, wrote that it “would erode the portfolio of habitat diversity and associated life history diversity that stabilize annual salmon returns to the Bristol Bay region.”
Legally, the project could be permitted within 30 days of this report, though that is highly unlikely.
More approval will be required from state leaders, the greenlighting of which will be fiercely controversial and debated, and likely subject to lawsuits.
“The E.I.S. is so lacking and thoroughly inadequate, I anticipate legal challenges,” said Brian Litmans, legal director of Trustees for Alaska, a nonprofit public interest law firm.
The EPA has not suggested it will block the proposal this time around, as it did under the Obama Administration in 2014.
Proponents of the mine are confident that even if Biden wins the presidency in 2020, the project will still move forward.
“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,” said Pebble Partnership CEO Tom Collier. “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.”
Collier, who stands to collect over $12 million if the mine is officially approved and constructed, expects that further legal challenges will take up to three years to surmount, at which time the mine will be dug.
That next three years will be quite a battle.
Top photo: Lake Clark National Park and Preserve, Alaska, NPS.