Pebble Mine is on the 'fast track'
Governmental agencies and tribes are reviewing a proposal to develop a huge mine in Alaska. The Pebble project would be the largest mine in North America and one of largest in the world. 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.
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.
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.
On Feb. 6, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is coordinating review of the permit applications, issued a preliminary final Environmental Impact Statement for a 45-day review period. This impact statement builds on and responds to comments made on a draft issued by the Corps last year. The preliminary final environmental impact statement was sent to regulatory agencies and tribes; it is not available to the public or the media.
Public interest in the Pebble project is high, and the amount of public input is enormous. Some 105,000 comments on the draft environmental impact statement were submitted. The list of agencies with oversight is long. And criticism of the draft environmental impact statement was widespread.
Some of the phrases about the draft environmental impact statement that cropped up in agency comments include: “lacks certain critical information,” or "substantial deficiencies and data gaps,” “provides inadequate support for several assumptions,” “underestimates impacts,” “would benefit from being corrected, strengthened or revised.”
One even calls the draft environmental impact statement "so inadequate as to preclude meaningful analysis.”
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 U.S. House weighed in with a rider to the 2020 appropriations bill.
The rider said adverse impacts to Alaska's world-class salmon fishery and to the ecosystem of Bristol Bay, Alaska, are unacceptable. The rider stated all the gaps and deficiencies in the draft environmental statement must be addressed. Otherwise, it encouraged agencies to “exercise their discretionary authorities, which include EPA's enforcement authority under the Clean Water Act, at an appropriate time in the permitting process to ensure the full protection of the region.”
U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, speaking during a Bristol Bay Salmon Week celebration in Washington on Sept. 18, 2019 said if the agencies are unable to address the concerns, then a permit should not be issued. "What we all need to be able to believe is that the science that drives the process can be trusted," she said, "whether it is this for this project or any other project that is out there.”
Alannah Hurley, Yup’ik, is executive director of United Tribes of Bristol Bay, a consortium of 15 tribes in the area of the mine. She said the preliminary final environmental impact statement doesn’t meet the standard set by Congress. She said it continues to have significant data gaps, and the analysis and studies that agencies identified as problematic have not been addressed.
“The reality is we're facing a process that is ignoring the concerns of Bristol Bay, ignoring the concerns of other scientists across these federal agencies,” Hurley said. “And now we're dealing with a Corps who is ignoring Congress as well, and they need to be held accountable.”
She said the root of the problems is that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is determined to get permits issued as soon as possible, no matter what the consequences.
“The big take home is that this process has been rushed from the get go,” Hurley said. “If the Corps remains on its published calendar, we will have a permit in two and a half years for the largest mine in North America, and at the headwaters of the last great sockeye salmon fishery left on the face of the planet.”
Hurley compared the Corps handling of the Pebble proposal to review of permit applications for another proposed gold mine in Alaska. Donlin "was much more of a regular process,” Hurley said. “And that took almost seven years to complete. Yet it's a fraction of the size of what Pebble is proposing here.” (The average review period is 4.5 years according to the White House Council on Environmental Quality.)
Pebble Limited Partnership CEO Tom Collier, in a prepared statement said, “Comments that the Corps ignored comments submitted on the draft [environmental impact statement] were incorrect and irresponsible. Just because some of the groups opposed to Pebble do not like the conclusions ... does not mean that the is not valid. Rather, the work on this issue is sound. It is defensible and it should be commended for its completeness."
Collier said the preliminary final environmental impact statement supports the Pebble Partnership’s views. “The information in the near final report was positive and demonstrates the project can be done without harming the Bristol Bay fishery and would be beneficial to communities closest to the project."
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.
The final environmental impact statement is due for release in mid-2020. The Corps’ options are to issue a permit, issue one with conditions, or deny the application. A Record of Decision will come at least 30 days after the Final Environmental Impact Statement is released, probably in the Fall.
Joaqlin Estus, Tlingit, is a national correspondent for Indian Country Today, and a long-time Alaska journalist.
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