MAC/20: Mines and Communities

Army Corps denies permit for giant Pebble mine in Alaska

Published by MAC on 2020-11-26
Source: Whashington Post, Haka Magazine

State and federal agencies warned that the project would permanently damage the region.

In a statement, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Alaska Commander Col. Damon Delarosa said that a plan to deal with waste from the Pebble Mine “does not comply with Clean Water Act guidelines,” and that “the proposed project is contrary to the public interest.”

In September this year, a series of recorded nasty conversations between EIA investigators and the Chief Executive Officers of Pebble Limited Partnership and Northern Dynasty Minerals were reveald.

See also:

2020-09-24 Leaked tapes reveal Pebble Mine dirty tricks


Putting the Pebble Mine to Rest

Weary Alaska communities are seeking permanent protections for the Bristol Bay watershed.

Ashley Braun

February 5, 2021

Robin Samuelsen still recalls his first meeting about the prospective Pebble Mine. It was around 2005 or 2006, in Dillingham, Alaska. Listening to an early plan for developing a copper and gold mine in the spawning grounds of Bristol Bay’s abundant salmon, this Curyung tribal chief and commercial fisherman quickly made up his mind. “You’ll kill off our salmon,” Samuelsen remembers saying, adding: “I’ll be up there to stop you.”

More than 15 years later, in November 2020, the US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) denied the Pebble Mine a key permit, a sharp setback for the mine—though not the first. Already, the mine’s developer, Pebble Limited Partnership (PLP), has filed an appeal challenging that decision. PLP was joined by the State of Alaska, which, in an unusual move, filed its own appeal. Both appeals are currently under review.

Even before these latest developments, however, the people living around the Bristol Bay region had been trying to bring this long-running tug of war to rest once and for all.

Just as he promised at the meeting in Dillingham, Samuelsen is part of a tribally led campaign to garner permanent legal protection for the Bristol Bay region’s thriving wild salmon from large-scale mining proposals—whether that be the Pebble Mine, or whatever comes next. Lindsay Layland, deputy director of the United Tribes of Bristol Bay (UTBB), which is involved in the effort, says the goal of the coalition is to find a way to legally prioritize the salmon that mean so much to the people living and fishing in the region.

Layland says the specter of the Pebble Mine has hung over her head since she was in middle school, listening to local radio reports while on her dad’s fishing boat.

By the time Layland joined UTBB in 2016, just a few years out of college, communities had already waged multiple protracted legal battles to secure protections for the fish. In 2009, six tribal councils in the region and two fishing groups launched a lawsuit that eventually prompted the state to amend the land use plan for the Bristol Bay region, but those changes did not remove the potential for large-scale mining. In 2010, Alaska Native tribes and fishermen petitioned the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to invoke a rarely used but powerful section of the Clean Water Act, known as 404(c).

According to former EPA regional administrator Dennis McLerran, who oversaw this process under the Obama administration, this part of the Clean Water Act empowers the EPA to place certain restrictions on mining and other activities if “it finds that there will be ‘unacceptable adverse impact’” on natural resources, including fisheries.

After a three-year scientific analysis, the EPA in 2014 proposed 404(c) restrictions on any proposal to mine the Pebble deposit if that mining effort would result in certain ecosystem changes. Almost immediately this EPA move, which mine proponents dubbed a “preemptive veto,” triggered years-long legal challenges from PLP. In 2017, under the Trump administration, the EPA agreed to withdraw the not-yet-finalized restrictions. Later that year, PLP submitted its application to USACE.

Fast forward to today, and Samuelsen and Layland are leading a second push for the EPA, now under President Biden, to again use its 404(c) powers. “We’re looking for a long-term fix,” says Samuelsen. Residents are tired of the political back and forth, he says. “It’s time to put Pebble to rest.”

McLerran says the EPA can use its 404(c) power at any point—even if PLP or the State of Alaska wins their appeals. However, the EPA would need to start this regulatory process anew—it couldn’t simply pick up where it left off in 2017, according to McLerran. And this time, the EPA would be considering PLP’s latest public—and recently revealed, private—ambitions for the mine before deciding on a possible 404(c) “veto.” Still, he adds, “the science has not changed.”

Yet even this EPA action would not provide the kind of permanent, watershed-wide protection the tribes and fishermen are seeking. Section 404(c) is a scalpel—a specific tool for a specific problem—says Matt Newman, an attorney working on behalf of UTBB. Depending on what geographic area the EPA might outline in a 404(c) decision, its ruling could make only certain areas around the Pebble deposit off limits to mining, and not the full watershed.

That’s why three tribal organizations—UTBB, Bristol Bay Native Association, and Bristol Bay Economic Development Corporation—and many supporters are championing a much more sweeping approach to protections. In addition to calling for EPA action, the coalition wants Congress to declare the broader Bristol Bay region a national fisheries area, says Newman. This legislative proposal, inspired by the fisheries regulations of the Magnuson-Stevens Act, would establish a first-of-its-kind onshore fisheries area. In this case, Newman says, the legislation would reflect similar restrictions on hardrock mining as Section 404(c), but across all of Bristol Bay’s nine major river basins.

According to PLP CEO John Shively, putting aside an area the size of the state of Ohio in a way “that limits not only mining but potentially other economic development does not make sense and harms opportunities for rural job creation and economic opportunity.”

“The mission is not to close the door to all development,” says Newman, “but rather to close the door on this very particular threat to the fishery.”

At this point, the campaign is just getting off the ground. The coalition is ramping up outreach and education efforts within Bristol Bay and beyond—including trying to make inroads with the new Biden administration.

While Samuelsen is optimistic about the campaign’s chances of success, he says that if the EPA and Congress don’t come alongside and protect Bristol Bay’s salmon, his grandchildren will continue the cause. “We’re the Salmon People,” says Samuelsen. “We are totally intertwined with our salmon.”

Army Corps denies permit for massive gold mine proposed near Bristol Bay in Alaska

Juliet Eilperin and Brady Dennis

November 25, 2020

The Trump administration on Wednesday denied a key permit for a massive gold and copper mine in Alaska, striking a devastating blow to a project opposed by an unlikely coalition that includes the president’s son and other prominent Republicans, as well as conservationists, commercial fishermen and Alaska Natives.

In a statement, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Alaska Commander Col. Damon Delarosa said that a plan to deal with waste from the Pebble Mine “does not comply with Clean Water Act guidelines,” and that “the proposed project is contrary to the public interest.”

While the Trump administration has pressed ahead to weaken environmental protections and expand energy development before the president’s term ends in January, the decision to torpedo the long-disputed mine represents a major win for environmentalists, fishing enthusiasts and tribal rights.

“Today’s decision speaks volumes about how bad this project is, how uniquely unacceptable it is,” Joel Reynolds, a senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, which has fought the mine for years, said in an interview. “We’ve had to kill this project more than once, and we’re going to continue killing for as long as it takes to protect Bristol Bay.”

Trump officials had allowed the Pebble Limited Partnership, a subsidiary of a Canadian firm, to apply for a permit even though the Obama administration had concluded in 2014 that the firm could not seek federal approval because the project could have “significant” and potentially “catastrophic” impacts on the world’s largest sockeye salmon fishery. As recently as July, the Corps concluded that the mine would have “no measurable effect” on area fish populations.

State and federal agencies warned that the project would permanently damage the region, destroying more than 2,800 acres of wetlands, 130 miles of streams and more than 130 acres of open water within Alaska’s Koktuli River watershed. The proposed site lies at the river’s headwaters.

An unlikely coalition of opponents formed when President Trump’s eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., Fox News host Tucker Carlson and Vice President Pence’s former chief of staff, Nick Ayers — who all have enjoyed fishing or hunting around Bristol Bay — joined with traditional environmental groups and the region’s tribes in opposition to the project.

Opponents received a major boost in September when the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) released recordings of secretly taped Zoom calls in which the project’s top executives boasted of their influence inside the White House and to Alaska lawmakers to win a federal permit. Alaska’s two GOP senators, Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan, issued statements saying they opposed the plan and within days Pebble’s chief executive, Tom Collier, resigned.

Both senators praised the administration’s decision.

“Today, the Army Corps has made the correct decision, based on an extensive record and the law, that the project cannot and should not be permitted,” Sullivan said. He added that he supports mining in Alaska, but given the project’s potential impact on the state’s fisheries and subsistence hunting, “Pebble had to meet a high bar so that we do not trade one resource for another.”

The Pebble Partnership’s new chief executive, John Shively, called the rejection politically driven and said the firm would consider other options going forward, including an appeal of the decision.

“We are obviously dismayed by today’s news,” Shively said in a statement, adding that the federal government this summer had allowed the project to move forward. “One of the real tragedies of this decision is the loss of economic opportunities for people living in the area.”

He added that the firm had worked closely with the Corps to address environmental concerns.

“All of these efforts led to a comprehensive, positive [environmental impact statement] for the project that clearly stated it could be developed responsibly,” Shively said. “It is very disconcerting to see political influence in this process at the eleventh hour.”

Pebble issued a plan to the Corps this fall outlining how it would compensate for any damage inflicted by the project, which would span more than 13 miles and require the construction of a 270-megawatt power plant, natural-gas pipeline, 82-mile double-lane road, elaborate storage facilities and the dredging of a port at Iliamna Bay.

While the company applied for 20-year permit, Northern Dynasty Minerals chief executive Ronald Thiessen said in secretly recorded conversations that he expected the operation could extract valuable minerals for decades longer than that.

President-elect Joe Biden has already said he would not allow the mine to be built.

“It is no place for a mine,” Biden said in a statement in August. “The Obama-Biden Administration reached that conclusion when we ran a rigorous, science-based process in 2014, and it is still true today.”

Wednesday’s decision does not necessarily end the years-long fight over the fate of the mine. The firm behind the Pebble Mine could challenge the decision in court or file an amended application seeking federal permits.

At the same time, opponents are hoping that under Biden, the Environmental Protection Agency will use its long-standing authority under the Clean Water Act to preemptively halt projects that the agency thinks will pollute nearby waterways.

Groups that fought the mine expressed confidence Wednesday that it might finally be on its last legs as a consequential transition takes place in Washington. “This project had four years to get an approval in the most favorable political environment imaginable — that is, under the Trump administration,” Reynolds said.

Trout Unlimited President Chris Wood, whose anglers’ group has campaigned against the project, said a decision to deny it a permit is “a victory for common sense. Bristol Bay is the wrong place for industrial-scale mining, and we look forward to working with the state and other partners to protect Bristol Bay and its world-class fisheries permanently.”

Bristol Bay Native Corporation President Jason Metrokin, also its chief executive, said his group and others will keep working “to ensure that wild salmon continue to thrive in Bristol Bay waters, bringing with them the immense cultural, subsistence and economic benefits that we all have enjoyed for so long.”

Adam Kolton, executive director of the Alaska Wilderness League, was among those giving thanks for the decision on the eve of Thanksgiving. Most of all, he was grateful that such a diverse group of opponents had raised their voices, over and over again.

“The credit for this victory belongs not to any politician but to Alaskans and Bristol Bay’s Indigenous peoples, as well as to hunters, anglers and wildlife enthusiasts from all across the country who spoke out in opposition to this dangerous and ill-conceived project,” he said in a statement. “We can be thankful that their voices were heard, that science counted and that people prevailed over short-term profiteering.”


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