Pebble Mine Hits A Snag As Army Corps Requests Changes To Plan (Updating)

As more and more hints suggest the Republican-led Trump administration is also considering opposition to the Pebble Mine, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has apparently walked back its original environmental impact statement that would help pave the way for the Pebble Partnership to get its mining permit. Here’s a the USACE statement:

This administration supports the mining industry and acknowledges the benefits the industry has provided to the economy and productivity of this country, from job creation to the extraction of valuable resources, which are especially important as we recover from this pandemic. The Pebble Mine project has the potential to fulfill all of those needs; however, as currently proposed, the project could have substantial environmental impacts within the unique Bristol Bay watershed and lacks adequate compensatory mitigation.

Given these concerns, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers finds under section 404 of the Clean Water Act that the project, as proposed, would likely result in significant degradation of the environment and would likely result in significant adverse effects on the aquatic system or human environment. This finding is based on factual determinations, evaluations, and tests required by subparts (b) and (g), and after consideration of subparts (c) through (f) and (h) of the 404 (b)(1) guidelines. This record is laid out in the environmental impact statement published on July 24, 2020.

Therefore, the Corps finds that the project, as currently proposed, cannot be permitted under section 404 of the Clean Water Act.

And some reaction, starting with Trout Unlimited (will update with further comments):

ANCHORAGE, AK – Today, in a move welcomed by thousands of American workers, Alaskan communities, and the most prolific wild salmon fishery in the world, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) said it found the proposed Pebble mine would likely cause significant degradation and significant adverse effects to the waters and fisheries of Bristol Bay, and cannot receive a permit under the Clean Water Act as proposed, creating a significant barrier to the project moving forward. 

“This is a great demonstration of democracy in action and a victory for common sense. The finding demonstrates that the voices of millions of Americans still matter and reflects the overwhelming weight of scientific evidence that’s been brought to bear,” said Chris Wood, president and CEO of Trout Unlimited. “The more public scrutiny this mine faces, the more science that’s brought to bear in its review, the more it stinks. The resources that sustain this bucket-list destination for sport anglers, local communities and commercial fishing families are worth protecting. Thank you to the legions of supporters that helped us get here.” 

Because of the proposed mine’s massive risks, for more than fifteen years Trout Unlimited has worked with communities, anglers, hunters, Tribes, businesses and local and national partners to galvanize opposition to this project. Hundreds of thousands of anglers, and hundreds of outdoor businesses have made their voice heard time and time again, most recently appealing to the Trump Administration directly.  

“This is a good day for Bristol Bay,” said Nelli Williams, Alaska director of Trout Unlimited. “No corner should be cut when considering a giant mine in the heart of a place this cherished and important. The Pebble Partnership put forward a half-baked plan with a litany of problems. Pebble had its opportunity to go through the process, but the project fails to meet the standards required. Kudos to all the decision makers involved for calling Pebble out on that. 

Over the two-year permit review process, many organizations, federal and state agencies, independent scientists, and countless individuals raised potentially fatal concerns about this project. Among them are the project’s destruction of streams and wetlands, its untested and incomplete water management and mitigation plans, unreliable tailings dam design, seismic activity near the deposit, and its huge economic costs. Those concerned about the proposed Pebble mine also cite threats to existing businesses, communities, and cultures that rely on the intact fishery, among various other issues. 

“Today’s actions reflect just how bad this mine proposal is and how incompatible it is with the Bristol Bay region,” said Brian Kraft, owner of Alaska Sportsman’s Lodge, president of Katmai Service Providers and TU business member. “Some places simply are not compatible with large industrial, open-pit mine operations, and the Bristol Bay region’s spawning grounds certainly are one of those locations. This is a good day for the people of Bristol Bay that have loudly said for 16 years now that this is the wrong place for this mine. It’s a good day for Americans who care about clean water, healthy fisheries, and existing jobs that rely on those fisheries.” 

The final Environmental Impact Statement documented nearly 200 miles of impacted streams, and 4,500 acres of impacted waters and wetlands (See FEIS at 4.22-15, Table 4.22-1.). The Army Corps said the function of the tailings facility was “uncertain,” and the Corps’ EIS contractor described it as “very similar” to the facility that failed catastrophically at the Mount Polley mine in 2014. 

“This is a moment to celebrate,” said Williams. “The opposition to this project runs strong and deep, the science is clear, and there is no way this ill-conceived project can coexist with Bristol Bay salmon. The message is clear from sportsmen and women across the country to the Pebble Partnership: It’s time to pack up and go home. You’re not welcome in Bristol Bay.” 

From the Natural Resources Defense Council:

WASHINGTON (Aug. 24, 2020) – The Army Corps of Engineers today said the Pebble Mine project in Bristol Bay, Alaska, would inflict “unavoidable adverse impacts” and lead to “significant degradation” to water and marine life.  The agency gave its backers 90 days to come up with a mitigation plan for the proposed gold and copper mine.

The following is a statement from Joel Reynolds, senior attorney with the Nature Program at the Natural Resources Defense Council:
 

“Real mitigation is death for Pebble Mine, because it’s impossible to mitigate the damage this project would inflict on Bristol Bay, its Tribes, and the people whose livelihoods and well-being depend on it. 
 

“Pebble Mine would destroy five and a half square miles of wetlands and open waters and harm nearly 200 miles of pristine streams. Now that the Corps has finally set the bar that the Clean Water Act and science require, Northern Dynasty can’t meet it. 
 

“The EPA should veto Pebble and put a stop to this nightmare once and for all.”    


BACKGROUND:

Just one month ago, the Army Corps issued a Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) that all but approved Pebble Mine, disregarding overwhelming local opposition and the broad consensus of the scientific community, concludes that the mine will yield “no measurable harm” to the fishery.  

Bristol Bay is home to the world’s most productive salmon fishery, which generates $1.5 billion in annual revenue and 14,000 jobs.  Salmon have also sustained the subsistence culture of Alaska Natives for millennia.  

The Corps’ FEIS lacked critical information, underestimated the risks to water and fish, and was insufficient to support compliance with the Clean Water Act.  The FEIS also substituted a proposed transportation route – eliminating an earlier plan to ferry across Iliamna lake, in favor of a new northern route over land.  Notably, the new route cuts through land owned by several Bristol Bay entities that refuse to grant Pebble access to their properties.

The Army Corps told Pebble today that it is developing a Record of Decision (ROD).  As part of the ROD, the Corps made determinations under the Clean Water Act that discharges at the mine site and associated with other aspects of the mine would cause unavoidable damage.  It required Pebble to mitigate damage by restoring, reestablishing, rehabilitating, establishing/creating, enhancing and/or preserving wetlands, streams or other aquatic resources.  The agency requires Pebble to provide in-kind compensatory mitigation for “all direct and indirect impacts caused by discharges into aquatic resources” at the mine site (2,825 acres of wetlands, 132.5 acres of open waters, and 129.5 miles of streams), and for unavoidable adverse impacts associated with the transportation corridor and the port site (460 acres of wetlands, 231.7 acres of open waters, and 55.5 miles of streams.)

The Environmental Protection Agency also has the authority under the Clean Water Act, Section 404(c), to veto the project.  EPA first initiated the 404(c) process to protect Bristol Bay from Pebble Mine in 2011 at the express request of Bristol Bay Tribes, the Bristol Bay Native Corporation, the commercial and sport fishing industries, conservation organizations and others.  Under the Obama administration, and after three years of scientific study that included two independent peer reviews, EPA issued a proposed determination under 404(c) in 2014 that would have placed common sense restrictions on the mine.  In a purely political move not supported by reason or science, EPA withdrew the proposed determination last year—choosing instead to rely on the Army Corps’ permitting process.  NRDC has today called once again for EPA to take action under section 404(c) to veto the Pebble Mine.

The Pebble Partnership commented that this action from the USACE is a “normal” procedure:

Anchorage, AK – The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) sent a letter to the Pebble Partnership outlining their expectations for compensatory mitigation wetlands impacts associated with the project. The letter from the USACE has been anticipated by the Pebble Partnership as part of the ongoing discussions about the issue. PLP CEO Tom Collier issued the following statement about the letter and media reports about its contents over the weekend:

“The letter we received today is a normal letter in the permitting process and we are well into an effort to present a mitigation plan to the USACE that complies with the requirements of their letter. A clear reading of the letter shows it is entirely unrelated to recent tweets about Pebble and one-sided news shows. The White House had nothing to do with the letter nor is it the show-stopper described by several in the news media over the weekend.

“The letter does not ask for a delay or pause in the permitting process. In fact, it clearly states that the USACE is continuing its work toward a Record of Decision for the project. This is the next step in what has been a comprehensive, exhaustive two-and-a-half-year review of the project. Nothing in the letter is a surprise to us or them.

“The letter does not ask for “more” or “additional” mitigation. This is the first time the USACE has put its formal assessment regarding mitigation for the Pebble Project on the record. Thus, it is a “first” request, not a new or additional one and it is in line with what we anticipated.

“The USACE has identified the wetlands and stream impacts at the project mine site to include about 3000 acres of wetlands and about 100 miles of streams. The USACE has stated that the mitigation must be “in kind” and “in watershed.” In order to provide such mitigation Pebble intends to include in its CMP a plan to preserve enough land so that multiples of the number of impacted wetlands acres are preserved. Additional mitigation will also be provided for the transportation corridor.

“We have been working on the details of a plan with the USACE and the State of Alaska since earlier in the summer. We have had crews in the field near the site since the end of July conducting additional wetlands surveys to provide us with additional information to include in our plan.

“Once the draft LEDPA was determined, the USACE began to focus on its conclusions regarding mitigation needs. It is our understanding that these issues were reviewed with other agencies including EPA and USFWS. We were informed about 6 weeks ago of how the USACE was leaning regarding mitigation. We began at that time focusing on a preliminary plan. We built two temporary camps in the watershed housing a total of about 25 people. A number of teams from those camps have been mapping the wetlands in the region for about four weeks now.

“Based on our understanding of the substance of the letter, our discussions with the state, our substantial work in the field and our discussions with the USACE we believe our final Comprehensive Management Plan submission will be submitted within weeks and will satisfy all of the requirements of the letter.

“Anyone suggesting a different opinion—i.e. that Pebble will not be able to comply with the letter or that such compliance will significantly delay issuing a ROD—must be ignorant of the EXTENSIVE preparation we have undertaken in order to meet the requirements of the letter.

“We will share more details of our initial plan as they become more defined.”

Statements from Alaska’s senators, Lisa Murkowkski and Dan Sullivan

From SalmonState:

ANCHORAGE— Today, the Army Corps recognizes that the Pebble Mine project: a massive gold and copper mine and toxic waste dump proposed in Bristol Bay would compromise the integrity of the pristine headwaters of the largest sockeye salmon run in the world.  

In a letter to the Pebble Mine’s vice president of permitting, The Army Corps admits, “factual determinations that discharges at the mine site would cause unavoidable adverse impacts to aquatic resources and, preliminarily, that those adverse impacts would result in significant degradation to those aquatic resources,” and directs the Canadian company to submit a mitigation plan that would offset these impacts by November 18, 2020.    

“The agency charged with determining if this mine is too dangerous, the Army Corps, has correctly found that a colossal open pit mine at the headwaters of America’s greatest remaining wild salmon fishery and the source of 14,000 jobs is too toxic to build at this time,” said SalmonState Executive Director Tim Bristol. “We are grateful for our Congressional delegation’s call on the Army Corps to take the decision a step further for a denial of the permit, we will not rest easy until Bristol Bay is afforded permanent protection. The next logical step must be from the Environmental Protection Agency utilizing their authority under the Clean Water Act to veto the Pebble Mine.”

“Unproven technology, shoddy science and broad public opposition led to today’s decision and while Pebble is not dead, it’s safe to say the Pebble Limited Partnership is on life support,” said Bristol. “Clearly this is the wrong mine in the wrong place, and it’s now time to end this saga; we call on the Environmental Protection Agency to use its authority under the Clean Water Act to veto the Pebble Mine.”

United Tribes of Bristol Bay:

DILLINGHAM, AK – Today’s news that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers finally acknowledged Pebble’s proposal is too toxic for Bristol Bay was met with celebration by the region’s Tribes and residents, who have worked to oppose this project for more than 20 years.
The Army Corps determination that Pebble “would likely result in significant degradation of the environment and would likely result in significant adverse effects on the aquatic system or human environment” reflects the extensive public comment and scientific input provided by the Region throughout the permitting process.
“We are pleased to see the Corps and Alaska’s senators have come to the same conclusion as the rest of the scientific community, that Pebble will have such severe impacts there is no way to mitigate the destruction it will cause,” said UTBB Executive Director Alannah Hurley. “It is impossible for Pebble to mitigate the devastation this mine will have on our Native cultures and our watershed. Pebble should not move forward in this process and should not be built. It is time for the Environmental Protection Agency to step in and veto this project using its Clean Water Act authority.”
The Pebble Limited Partnership applied for the major federal permit needed to build one of North America’s largest mines at the headwaters of two of Bristol Bay’s critical rivers in December 2017. The Army Corps, the lead agency reviewing that permit, issued a final Environmental Impact Statement earlier this summer, which found that the project would destroy hundreds of miles of rivers and streams and thousands of acres of wetlands. The project would additionally have unavoidable negative impacts on local cultures and communities.
The Army Corps statement of opposition is not a final action to stop the project, and further action is necessary to fully protect Bristol Bay from Pebble’s unwanted proposal. UTBB agrees with Senators Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan’s statement that a permit cannot be issued for Pebble’s proposal.

From the American Sportfishing Association:

Alexandria, VA – August 25, 2020 – The American Sportfishing Association(ASA) supports the announcement by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that the proposed Pebble Mine, a massive mineral extraction mining development in Alaska’s Bristol Bay area, cannot be permitted as proposed. The Pebble Mine threatens one of the world’s most productive wild salmon strongholds. 

Pebble Limited Partnership, the mine’s developer, must now outline how it will address the proposed mine’s damage to nearby wetlands and waterways. Within 90 days, the company must show how it will compensate for harming more than 2,800 acres of wetlands, 130 miles of streams and more than 130 acres of open water within Alaska’s Koktuli River Watershed.

“As the voice of the sportfishing industry, ASA has been opposed to the Pebble Mine since it was first proposed over a decade ago,” said Mike Leonard, ASA’s vice president of Government Affairs. “The devastation the proposed mine would have on the ecosystem and the region’s economy, which is heavily dependent on Bristol Bay’s fisheries, is simply too great and we are happy to see the Army Corps take this action.”

“The Army Corps’ decision is a pivotal moment in the fight against the Pebble Mine,” said Chad Tokowicz, ASA’s Inland Fisheries Policy manager. “By denying the current proposal, the Army Corp has acknowledged what ASA and many other outdoor recreation groups have been saying for years: Pebble Mine is simply the wrong mine in the wrong place. While the fight isn’t completely over, we’re glad that the Army Corps has brought to light the insurmountable risks the mine poses, creating a significant barrier to the project moving forward.” 

Tokowicz further noted that although this decision is a step in the right direction, it does not guarantee Bristol Bay’s future. “We must not lose sight of our end goal which is putting an end to the Pebble Mine once and for all. Only a veto from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) can stop the Pebble Mine.”

Tokowicz concluded, “We would not be where we are today if it weren’t for our industry members’ lending their voices to this issue. I encourage everyone to send a message to the EPA telling them to veto the Pebble Mine.”

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