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Early release of Pebble Mine Final EIS triggers barrage of criticism from native, commercial fishing, sportfishing groups

Published: Jul. 23, 2020 at 8:34 PM AKDT|Updated: Jul. 23, 2020 at 9:12 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Thursday a wide array of Alaska Native, commercial fishing, and sportfishing groups issued statements criticizing the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Final Environmental Impact Statement for the proposed Pebble Mine after copies of the document were delivered to interested parties via USPS a day before its publication in the Federal Register.

The Final EIS is not a decision on whether the Pebble Partnership will receive the permits it needs to move forward with the mine, but rather it is a scientific document the Army Corps and U.S. Coast Guard will use to make permitting decisions.

The version of the project USACE deemed to be the “Least Environmentally Damaging Practicable Alternative” includes a mine site with a footprint of 8,390 acres, a transportation corridor with 82 miles of road along the northern end of Lake Iliamna, a port near Diamond Point on the west side of Cook Inlet and a natural gas pipeline from the Diamond Point port across Cook Inlet to near Anchor Point.

The minerals of the Pebble Deposit were first discovered in 1988 by Cominco Alaska, but the company discontinued work on potential development of the deposit in 1997, the EIS states. The rights were acquired by a subsidiary of Northern Dynasty Minerals, Ltd. in 2001, and in 2007, Northern Dynasty formed Pebble Limited Partnership after more exploratory drilling revealed the size of the deposit.

The conflict over the mine stems from whether or not the mine and infrastructure needed to develop it can be done without damaging the salmon fishery of Bristol Bay. The area supports the subsistence lifestyle of the region’s residents, the largest commercial sockeye fishery in the world, a highly regarded sport fishery and a total salmon fishery that the Alaska Department of Fish and Game valued at $306.5 million in 2019.

The Pebble Partnership claims that each year during a 20-year life of the mine, it would produce 318 million pounds of copper, 362,000 ounces of gold, 14 million pounds of molybdenum and 1.8 million ounces of silver.

The Final EIS states that the project would employ approximately 2,000 people during the 2-3 year phase of construction, then employee 850 people annually on average through the 20-year operation of the mine.

Despite the promise of economic contributions to the state, a broad coalition of groups and individuals oppose the mine because of the environmental damage it would cause if developed, and the threat of a catastrophic failure of a dam that would store acidic mining waste.

The Final EIS states that, at the mine site, the project would include the following impact on fisheries:

In summary, development of the mine site would permanently remove approximately 99 miles of streambed habitat in the NFK (North Fork Koktuli) and SFK (South Fork Koktuli) drainages. Direct effects on fish, including displacement, injury, and mortality, would occur with the permanent removal of stream habitat in the NFK and SFK drainages due to mine site construction. Stream productivity in the NFK and SFK drainages would be reduced to some degree with the loss of physical and biological inputs. These impacts would be permanent, and certain to occur.

USACE, p. 86 Pebble Project EIS Executive Summary

Additionally, the Final EIS states the project’s transportation corridor would discharge dredged or fill material to more than 3,000 acres of wetlands and other waters, including more than 110 miles of streams.

Despite certain negative impacts in headwaters, the Corps states, “Under normal operations, 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 earliest USACE can issue a record of decision on whether or not it will issue permits under the Clean Water Act and Rivers and Habors Act is 30 days from Friday.

However, the Corps decision could be put on hold because of litigation.

Last October, Alaska Native and other regional groups, along with commercial fishing and sportfishing groups sued the EPA for its decision to withdraw a proposed determination issued in 2014 that had prevented a large mine from being developed in Bristol Bay.

U.S. District Judge Sharon Gleason dismissed the case earlier this year, writing that the court did not have jurisdiction to review the EPA’s action.

Trout Unlimited is appealing the ruling.

The group seeks to have the court recognize it has the authority to review the EPA’s action, and ultimately have the EPA’s decision to withdraw the proposed determination vacated.

A hearing in the appeal is scheduled for August 12. The court has granted expedited review.

In addition to the Trout Unlimited lawsuit against the EPA, sources with multiple stakeholder organizations have indicated they will consider litigation if USACE issues a permit for the mine.

If the Pebble Partnership receives the federal permits it needs to move forward, it has at least 3-4 years of state permitting to complete before construction can begin.

Outside of permitting, the company still faces challenges acquiring rights to use land along the path USACE deemed as the least environmentally damaging practicable alternative.

On Thursday, the Igiugig Village Council, which owns the lands at Diamond Point where the project aims to build a port, issued a statement stating:

“Igiugig has been very clear that Diamond Point is not availabe for Pebble’s use. As stated last month, Tribe has existing plans for our Diamond Point site that are not and will not be compatible with Pebble’s plans, and we have informed both the Army Corps and Pebble of this face. Their insistence on pushing this impractical route forward, which is reliant on lands not open to Pebble development, disrespectfully ignores our Tribal sovereignty. IVC is committed to the sustainability and health of our future generation and Pebble does not fit into our vision of a thriving future.”

Igiugig Village Council

The Pebble Partnership also faces roadblocks along the route with ANCSA landholders - chiefly the Bristol Bay Native Corporation, as well as Pedro Bay Corporation.

Despite the access issues, Pebble Partnership CEO Tom Collier has maintained that those disputes will be resolved and the company will secure rights of way needed to access the deposit.

The Pebble Partnership also received a copy of the Final EIS in the mail Thursday. Collier issued a statement saying in part:

“Some will criticize the USACE and the process they followed to get to this point. That is unfortunate. The USACE is staffed by some of the most diligent public servants in our government. Project detractors will surely take this report to court and I welcome that challenge because the process is sound and defensible.

Alaskans have demanded that Pebble, and any Alaska resource development project, meet its high standards before the project could advance. Today, we have passed a critical milestone on that journey. I want to commend and thank the many people who have helped get us to this point. We look forward the seeing the Record of Decision for the project, initiating the state’s rigorous permitting process, and ultimately constructing a mine at the Pebble Deposit. And, I look forward to Alaskans learning more about the real Pebble story for themselves and recognizing it can be done responsibly.”

Tom Collier, CEO Pebble Limited Partnership

Andy Wink, executive director of Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association, said the federal administration should consider the thousands of fishing and seafood jobs he says would be jeopardized by this project.

“For the Army Corps to rubber stamp a massive toxic open-pit mine in the headwaters of a national food source just doesn’t make sense,” Wink said. “There is no precedent for a mine of this size and type coexisting with abundant wild salmon runs.”

You can read the Executive Summary of the Final EIS below.

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