Joaqlin Estus
Indian Country Today

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers plans to soon release its final environmental review of a proposed copper and gold mine near the headwaters of a major salmon fishery in southwest Alaska. The Corps will use the document to make a decision on a permit expected later this year.

For years, the proposed Pebble Mine has been shrouded in controversy. Release of the review expected on Friday isn’t likely to clear that up. Some tribes, tribal groups, fishermen and others say the review has been rushed, and is superficial.

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.”

United Tribes of Bristol Bay, a tribal consortium, said because the developer has made significant changes in its plans, the environmental impact statement is incomplete.

The consortium said during review of the preliminary environmental impact statements, the Corps of Engineers had directed commenters’ attention to a lake-crossing transportation alternative that project developer Pebble, Ltd planned to use.

Then the corps in June 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.

The consortium commented, “the [Northern] route traverses’ lands that landowners have publicly stated are not available for the purpose of building Pebble mine. Indeed, your agency has been aware of landowner objections to the northern transportation route since at least 2019.” Pedro Bay Corporation, 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 to the Associated Press 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."

(Related: Pebble Mine is on the 'fast track')

Last week, the tribal consortium said the northern transportation route had been given “short shrift” in the review process, and needs additional scrutiny and analysis. They asked the corps to prepare a supplemental environmental impact statement, open an additional period of public comment, and hold hearings on what they call a major project change.

The consortium cited an April memo from the Corps of Engineers to the project developer listing items that would be needed to complete the application — items the consortium said have not been supplied or not made publicly available.

The corps’ 18-page list of additional items needed to complete the application includes broad categories such as descriptions of:

— The area of wetlands, streams, tidal waters and open waters that would be impacted by discharges of dredged or fill material

— The number of acres of wetlands that would be filled for each component of the project: mine site, transportation corridor, pipeline corridor, port dredge area, disposal area, and lightering (vessel-to-vessel) moorage

— The construction schedule

— Detailed maps and drawings

— The length and dimensions of a natural gas pipeline and fiber optic cable

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.

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.

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The Associated Press contributed to this report.