Indian Country Today

The Trump administration has laid the groundwork to give a large mining project in Alaska the go-ahead. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers released a final environmental impact statement Thursday evening that concludes, "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 final environmental analysis claims the gold and copper mine, which would be the largest in North America, will not damage the Bristol Bay fishery. 

The environmental analysis will be used to inform the permit process which could be issued in as soon as 30 days. 

Tom Collier, CEO of the Pebble Limited Partnership, the project developer, said the work done so far provides confidence the review will show "why we believe the project can be done without harm to the Bristol Bay fishery."

The corps previously disclosed a preliminary determination that a northern transportation route would be part of a "least environmentally damaging practicable alternative." David Hobbie, chief of the corps' regional regulatory division, told reporters Monday that public comment, work with other agencies and review of information and impacts went into that determination.

Pedro Bay Corp., an Alaska Native village corporation, and the Igiugig Village Council, through officials, have raised concerns with that option, citing their ownership of land in the area that they have not given Pebble permission to use. Hobbie said the corps still deemed the option practicable because Pebble did. 

Mike Heatwole, a Pebble spokesperson, by email said the Pebble partnership plans to engage with all landowners along the northern route and believes it "will be successful in obtaining access to the transportation corridor necessary for the project."

Hobbie said the review would disclose the types of impacts that could be expected with a project. 

The corps has said there are three options with its later record of decision: issuance of a permit; issuance of a permit with conditions; or denial. Hobbie said a record of decision cannot be finalized for at least 30 days from the publishing of the final environmental review. 

Daniel Cheyette, vice president for lands and natural resources for Bristol Bay Native Corp., cited concerns with the adequacy of the review. 

"I think, based on where we are, the only permit decision that the corps can reach is a denial of the permit," he said.

Bristol Bay produces about half the world's sockeye salmon, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which under the Obama administration proposed restrictions on development in the region. Those restrictions were never finalized, and the agency last year withdrew the proposal, saying it was outdated and issued preemptively.

Pebble argued the proposed restrictions were based on hypothetical projects and pushed to have the project go through the permitting process. Canada-based Northern Dynasty Minerals Ltd., which owns the Pebble partnership, has been seeking a project partner for years, and Pebble is hopeful that success with permitting will aid in that effort. Pebble, as part of its push, still would need state approvals.

Critics say the Bristol Bay region is no place for a mine like this and have vowed to continue fighting Pebble.

Preserving the harvest

One hundred miles to the west of the proposed mine site is Bristol Bay, home to the largest sockeye salmon fishery. The fish return annually to the region’s multitude of rivers, lakes, streams and estuaries to spawn then die.

Alaska Natives have relied on salmon for thousands of years. It’s a major source of protein, and the mainstay of a way of life. The Yup’ik culture in the area has long revolved around fishing and sharing and preserving the harvest. The fishery is now also important to the thousands of people involved in the commercial harvest of salmon. In 2019, commercial fishermen harvested 43 million sockeye salmon valued at $306.7 million, the most in the history of the Bristol Bay fishery.

The administration says the project by a Canadian development company is worth $500 billion. The open pit mine would be 2,500 feet, or 7.5 city blocks, long, and 13,000 feet, or 229 stories, deep. The project would include a transportation corridor, a port, a natural gas pipeline, and a heap of waste rock, or tailings, that reach 700 feet, or 64 stories, high.

It will take a large mine to dig up and process massive amounts of rock containing small amounts of valuable minerals. To get at the precious metals, which are valued at $345 to $500 billion, more than a billion tons of ore would be processed at the rate of 180,000 tons per day for 20 years. The Pebble Limited Partnership estimates the proposed site holds 67 million ounces of gold, 50 billion pounds of copper, and 3.3 billion pounds of molybdenum.

Seventeen miles from the proposed Pebble mine site is the village of Iliamna, with a population of 109. Leaders there want a seat at the table but remain neutral on the Pebble project itself. Fishermen, tribes, and other villages have come out in opposition. Among other issues, they’re concerned contaminated wastewater will seep through porous soils to the rivers that support salmon.

The prospect of the Pebble mine going forward worries Iliamna villager Louise Anelon, Yup’ik. “There's a lot of things to worry about for me, as somebody that's just so used to how it's going, to how it is right now versus this project and all this noise and people and moving a lot of ground,” Anelon said. “Water could be affected and it’s just lots to worry about for me.”

Plus she said Pebble is coming on top of the effects of climate change: hotter, windier weather; fewer caribou; and late salmon runs. Analon said, “There's a lot of stuff happening that we can't see to the eye.

“Then we have this Pebble thing that's potentially going to happen and that's a two-time whammy,” Analon said. “I just am afraid for that to happen with so many changes already happening …. we know it's going to be giving jobs to folks but it's going to change our land, water, everything, forever. So that's just my concern right there.

Still, Analon understands the position of many mine supporters. “No job opportunities, I think that's what most of the folks out here are seeing,” Analon said.

Map of the project from draft Environmental Impact Statement

Map of the project from draft Environmental Impact Statement

In a statement on Friday, Pebble said it believed the final EIS “describes a proposed open-pit mine and related project infrastructure that will protect water quality, fisheries, wildlife and other valued natural resources, and that can secure all necessary federal and state permits in future.”

Under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971, title to land was transferred to Native corporations to make money and issue dividends to shareholders. It’s unusual for a Native corporation to oppose resource development. Yet, the Alaska Native for-profit Bristol Bay Native Corporation came out in opposition to the proposed Pebble mine.

It said the proposal is flawed and deficient, but “… enough is known about the potential impacts of the proposed Pebble Mine project to conclude that it cannot be constructed in a way that would not cause significant adverse effects to Bristol bay and its fisheries.” Moreover, the project would “pose too great a risk to our Native way of life and the cultural, subsistence, economic, and ecological resources of the Bristol Bay Region.”

The Native corporation went on to say that it will “not extend to the Pebble Limited Partnership any permission to occupy or trespass our lands or make use of our subsurface resources.”

The state of Alaska favors the Pebble project. In Dec. 2019, CNN reported that Governor Mike Dunleavy used materials, sometimes verbatim, provided to him by the Pebble Partnership in comments to the Corps. A Pebble spokesperson told the Juneau Empire that such collaboration is common.

Now that the final environmental impact statement has concluded the next step in the process is a Record of Decision, followed by a permit. That decision could come as soon as in 30 days .

 Joaqlin Estus, Tlingit, is a national correspondent for Indian Country Today, and a long-time Alaska journalist.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.