Alaska mine opponents say federal change favors project

In this July 13, 2007, photo, a worker with the Pebble Mine project digs in the Bristol Bay region of Alaska near the village of Iliamma, Alaska. (AP Photo/Al Grillo, File)

The Associated Press

‘This is a con game, a giant bait and switch’

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — A federal agency announced a preferred transportation route for precious metals leaving a proposed mine in Alaska's Bristol Bay region, angering opposition groups who say the decision represents a significant change that needs public review.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers made a preliminary determination that a “northern route” is the practical and least environmentally damaging option for the Pebble Mine, The Anchorage Daily News reported Saturday.

The open-pit mine would be about 200 miles southwest of Anchorage, straddling salmon-producing headwaters of the Bristol Bay fishery. Last week, more than 250 national outdoor businesses and organizations signed a letter urging President Donald Trump to deny a key permit for the project. 

A northern route carrying copper and gold concentrate would travel over land about 80 miles around the coast of Lake Iliamna.

The Corps is expected to release a final environmental review of the project, possibly next month, before determining whether it issues a permit, a permit with conditions or denies Pebble’s application, Corps spokesman John Budnik said.

The Corps’ preliminary preferred alternative is different from the original option submitted by project owner Pebble Limited Partnership. Pebble submitted plans in late 2017 calling for a southern route with an ice-breaking ferry across Lake Iliamna.

The northern route includes a pipeline for the metals and “dramatically reduces truck traffic,” Pebble spokesman Mike Heatwole said Friday.

“This is about Pebble pushing for a bigger mine under the guise of the smaller plan,” said Rachel James of conservation group SalmonState. “This is a con game, a giant bait and switch, and the Army Corps is in on the scam: analyze for one option and allow for another.”

The Bristol Bay Native Corp. said in a statement that the northern route could support a larger mine, which the organization views as an indication Pebble will seek extensions beyond the 20-year permit being pursued.

The regional Alaska Native corporation has said it will not make its lands available for the route.

“It is unacceptable for (Pebble) to make such a significant change in its plans after the completion of the preliminary final environmental impact statement,” said Dan Cheyette, the corporation’s vice president of lands.

“(The northern route) has not been vetted and scrutinized by both the public and cooperating agencies on the same level as other transportation routes,” he said in a statement.

Alannah Hurley of United Tribes of Bristol Bay said, “The decision is another attempt to streamline and do things behind closed doors, so the public can’t engage.”

Meanwhile, the national outdoor businesses and groups who wrote to Trump also asked the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to delay further development on the project.

“If built, the mine would immediately jeopardize thousands of American jobs, hundreds of businesses, a sportfishing and hunting paradise, and thriving outdoor industries,” the letter said. The authors fear the project could endanger 14,000 jobs and a $1.5 billion annual economy tied to the Bristol Bay region, and potentially harm the Bay’s abundant ecosystem and wildlife.

In a Friday press briefing on the status of the permitting process, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said they hadn’t seen the letter, but appreciated the comments on the project. 

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Stanford Rebele Fellow Meghan Fate Sullivan, Koyukon Athabascan, contributed to this report. Sullivan grew up in Alaska, and is currently reporting on her home state from Indian Country Today's Anchorage Bureau. Follow her on Twitter: @mfatesully

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