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Joaqlin Estus
Indian Country Today

Last week the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers issued a final environmental analysis that pits two of the Alaska’s major industries against each other: mining and fishing.

On one hand is a proposed copper-molybdenum-gold mine that would be the largest such mine in North America and one of the largest in the world. On the other hand is one of the nation’s top fisheries, the Bristol Bay sockeye salmon fishery.

According to the corps’ analysis, if given the go-ahead, the Pebble project would mine approximately 1.4 billion tons of material over a period of 20 years. The value of the precious metals is an estimated $345 to $500 billion.

The project would create an open pit at least a mile across and 1,950 feet deep. In addition to the open pit, the Pebble project would include a network of roads, two ferry terminals, and a port. A natural gas pipeline and fiberoptic and electrical cables would stretch first under Cook Inlet, then under Iliamna Lake, the third largest lake entirely in the United States.

Opponents say the mine would put the world’s largest sockeye salmon fishery at risk.

Bristol Bay ranked No. 2 in the nation last year for the value of fish landed. Some 56.5 million salmon were harvested as they returned to the streams of their birth to spawn then die. About 14,000 people were employed during the 2019 fishing season. The fishery adds $306 million to the Alaska economy.

In addition to the commercial fishery, there is a significant subsistence fishery. A study five years ago by the state of Alaska said the region's subsistence harvests "are among the largest in the state and are very diverse." The study said replacing that fishery would cost residents thousands of dollars per year when people already spend between 15 and 26 percent of their income on store-bought foods.  "However, this exercise omits the cultural, social, and nutritional costs of replacing subsistence foods with imported substitutes. Indeed, it is unlikely that adequate substitutes for many subsistence foods produced in the region could be purchased," the study said.

Significant milestone

In a prepared statement, Pebble Limited Partnership CEO Tom Collier called the corps’ issuance of the final environmental impact statement a “significant milestone.”

Collier said the corps’ analysis counters a “lengthy misinformation campaign” that led many people to believe the mine would harm fisheries. Instead, he said, it shows the project “could be done responsibly, be done without harm to the Bristol Bay fishery, and provide meaningful contributions to the communities closest to the project.

“The final EIS [environmental impact statement] for Pebble unequivocally shows it can be developed without harming salmon populations. It clearly states that no long-term measurable impacts to returning salmon are to be expected and there will be no long-term changes to the health of the Bristol Bay commercial fishery,” he said.

Collier said because of the quality of the corps’ analysis, opponents will find their criticisms carry little weight. 

“Project detractors will surely take this report to court and I welcome that challenge because the process is sound and defensible. The process has been thorough. It has been thoughtful, and it will prevail in court if it comes to that,” Collier said.

He went on to say a multi-billion dollar construction phase will be followed by hundreds of millions of dollars in annual activity and many good, year-round jobs.

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In comments on the earlier draft environmental statement, the Alaska Resource Development Council said, “project proponents have greatly reduced the project footprint of the proposed mine and have mitigated potential impacts in a way that will allow the mine to be responsibility developed.” The council said the project is in a region of Alaska where few other economic opportunities exist. “In addition to jobs and economic benefits, the project is expected to provide an estimated $1 billion to the State over 20 years.”

Opponents say the proposed project’s location in the headwaters of Bristol Bay raises serious concerns.

In a joint statement, United Tribes of Bristol Bay, Bristol Bay Economic Development Corp., Bristol Bay Native Association, and Commercial Fishermen for Bristol Bay, said, “The document (final environmental impact statement] ignores science and does nothing to address comments filed by tens of thousands of people who all know the truth: the proposed gold and copper mine will devastate Bristol Bay’s waters and its world-class fishery.”

Bristol Bay Native Corporation President and CEO Jason Metrokin, Aleut, said, “BBNC supports responsible development, but time and time again, the Pebble Limited Partnership (PLP) has proven it cannot meet the rigorous standards necessary to permit this project.”

Metrokin said the Pebble partnership recently submitted a revised transportation route that includes Bristol Bay Native Corporation lands “despite our specific refusal to allow such use – and a new, previously unexamined, port facility design. Such major changes with little time for analysis is, unfortunately, standard practice in what has been a fundamentally broken permitting process.”

Under state mandates designed to curb the spread of COVID-19, the Bristol Bay commercial salmon fishery was deemed “essential,” said Andy Wink, executive director of the Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association

“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,” he said. “There is no precedent for a mine of this size and type coexisting with abundant wild salmon runs. What the Pebble Partnership has proposed is essentially one big experiment with no real science or data to back it up.”

“Since day one the Army Corps has cut corners, ignored the science, and silenced Alaskans. They still haven’t answered our questions and addressed our concerns about missing information and data. Their Final EIS is not the thorough, science-based assessment that we were promised,” said Frances Leach, executive director of United Fishermen for Alaska.

“With the Final EIS out, there’s no doubt left about the Army Corps’ inability and unwillingness to conduct a thorough, science-based permitting process. Bristol Bay’s fishermen are counting on the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] to use its veto authority under the Clean Water Act to ensure protection of Bristol Bay,” said Katherine Carscallen, executive director of Commercial Fishermen for Bristol Bay. “We need the EPA to stand by its own science, which shows that the Pebble Mine cannot be built — at any size — without harming our country’s largest source of sustainable wild salmon.”

In addition to individuals, private, and tribal interests, several federal agencies have raised concerns about impacts to commercial, subsistence and sports fishing -- agencies such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Environmental Protection Agency, National Marine Fisheries Service, and Department of the Interior.

Information in the final environmental impact statement will be used by the corps to decide whether to issue two permits for the mine: Section 404 of the Clean Water Act, and Section 10 of the Rivers and Harbors Act. The corps will issue a decision on the project sometime after 30 days after the issuance of the environmental analysis. There are other federal permits that may be needed.

The state of Alaska then will embark on its review and approval process for state regulations. The state’s previous governor, Bill Walker, opposed the project. Current governor Mike Dunleavy said he will remain neutral on the project as it goes through the permitting process. However, in presentations to mining groups and speeches, Dunleavy has empathized that Alaska is “open for business.”

Correction: Jason Metrokin is President and CEO of the Bristol Bay Native Corp., not the board chair. 

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