Indian Country Today
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers recently issued a final environmental impact statement for a proposed mining project near the Bristol Bay watershed area in Alaska.
The corps’ analysis, released July 24, lays the groundwork for a final decision giving the go-ahead to key federal permits for the Pebble mine. The corps stated, “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.”
A decision on the permits is expected as soon as mid-August.
For decades, there has been controversy and heated debate surrounding the mine’s development.
If created, Pebble Mine would be the largest mine in North America. The project is estimated to be worth between $345 to $500 billion in minerals, including around 70 million ounces of gold, 50 billion pounds of copper, and 3.3 billion pounds of molybdenum.
However, the mine’s creation could also potentially damage the Bristol Bay watershed ecosystem, putting the area’s abundant salmon population in danger. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Bristol Bay produces about half the world's sockeye salmon. The region’s fishing industry is estimated to be worth around $300 million per year. In 2019 alone, commercial fishermen harvested 43 million salmon there. Alaska Native tribes in the region have also relied upon the salmon for thousands of years.
The project has been through several significant changes since it was first proposed decades ago. The permitting process was halted then restarted, and partners dropped out and new ones joined. The developments can be hard to track.
Below is a timeline of key events that have occurred since the mining site was first identified in 1988.
- Cominco Alaska Exploration (now known as Teck Resources) starts exploring the Pebble site for potential mining opportunities. They discover that the Pebble West area contains significant gold, copper, and mineral deposits. They start to conduct more tests across the region.
- Northern Dynasty secures rights to purchase the Pebble property.
- Northern Dynasty discovers Pebble East, an area with even higher-grade mineralization than Pebble West. They continue to explore and test the region.
- Northern Dynasty and Anglo American, a global mining company, enter a 50/50 partnership, known as the Pebble Partnership, with plans to develop a mine at the site.
- Northern Dynasty releases the Preliminary Assessment Technical Report on the Pebble site. It highlights Pebble’s potential to become one of the world’s largest metal producers.
- At the same time, some Alaska Native groups in the area begin to question the project’s impact on the surrounding environment. The Environmental Protection Agency begins a 3-year assessment of the Bristol Bay water-shed area in response.
- The Pebble Partnership releases the Environmental Baseline Document focused on scientific data related to the area.
- The EPA’s Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment is released, which shows evidence that the mine could impact the surrounding ecosystems and salmon population. Anglo America leaves the Pebble Partnership.
- The Pebble Partnership releases its “Economic and Employment Contributions of a Conceptual Pebble Mine to the Alaska and United States Economies” review, focused on the economic impact of the mine.
- The EPA releases its 404(c) Environmental Assessment of the area and starts employing 404(c) protections (made possible by the Clean Water Act) to Bristol Bay and its fisheries.
- Pebble Partnership takes legal action against the EPA’s 404(c) project veto. The EPA has to halt the 404(c) process as a result.
- EPA releases its Proposed Determination review, which states that Pebble mining should be limited due to the potential detrimental consequences it could have on the surrounding salmon ecosystems.
- President Trump is elected to office and the Obama administration ends. People wonder if the new administration will bring a different direction to the mine project.
- The Pebble Partnership and the EPA reach a settlement over the 2014 legal action, allowing the Pebble Partnership to resume the permitting process in the area.
- The EPA suspends its withdrawal of the Proposed Determination due to public concern.
- The Pebble Project submits a Clean Water Act permit for review, a key step in the mine permitting process.
- The EPA continues to consider the withdrawal of the Proposed Determination.
- In February, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers releases the draft environmental impact statement under the National Environmental Policy Act and a draft Clean Water Act Section 404 permit. A public review of the EIS statement begins.
- In July, the EPA withdraws its 2014 Proposed Determination.
- The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers continues to review the Clean Water Act permit application from the Pebble Partnership.
- July 23, the final environmental impact statement is released.
- After a minimum of 30 days, the corps will issue a record of decision on the application for a Clean Water Act section 404 permit and Section 10 of the Rivers and Harbors Act. The options are to issue a permit, issue a permit with conditions, or denial of the permit request.
- On Aug. 4, Donald Trump Jr. tweets that he is against the development of Pebble Mine, highlighting growing bipartisan opposition to the project. "As a sportsman who has spent plenty of time in the area I agree 100%. The headwaters of Bristol Bay and the surrounding fishery are too unique and fragile to take any chances with. #PebbleMine," he wrote.
Meghan Fate Sullivan, Koyukon Athabascan, is a Stanford Rebele Fellow for Indian Country Today. She grew up in Alaska, and is currently reporting on her home state from our Anchorage Bureau.