After Trump’s opposition, Army Corps holds up permits for Alaska’s Pebble Mine

Published on
August 25, 2020

The Army Corps of Engineers said in statement released Monday, 24 August, that the Pebble Mine project in Bristol Bay, Alaska cannot be permitted under its current proposal, a move that could sink the massive open-pit gold and copper mine at the headwaters of the world’s largest sockeye salmon run.

The statement clarified that the Trump administration supports the mining industry, but said the project “could have substantial environmental impact on the unique Bristol Bay watershed and lacks adequate compensatory mitigation.”

“Given these concerns, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers finds under section 404 of the Clean Water Act that the project, as proposed, would likely result in significant degradation of the environment and would likely result in significant adverse effects on the aquatic system or human environment,” the Corps statement read.

According to Politico, the statement comes on the heels of the Corps’ Alaska office issuing a set of mitigation conditions to the mine’s developer, Pebble Limited Partnership. The Corps submitted a letter to the Pebble Partnership on Monday, 24 August, notifying the company that its project is not permissable under section 404 of the Clean Water Act as currently proposed.

Mitigation efforts specified by the Alaska Corps would include improving around 3,000 acres of wetlands, along with streams and stretches of open water. The Corps’ letter gives the mining company 90 days to submit a mitigation plan, but any such plan will be inherently difficult to implement, since the pristine Bristol Bay ecosystem has little in the way of wetlands and streams that need improving.

The 90-day stay punts the controversial decision until after the November election.

After initially saying he would consider both sides of the issue, U.S. President Donald Trump recently decided he opposes the proposed mine, having been influenced by project opponents including Donald Trump Jr. and Bass Pro Shops CEO Johnny Morris, a Trump donor.

Rachel James, the Bristol Bay Campaign Coordinator for SalmonState, a nonprofit with the mission of preserving Alaska’s wild salmon populations, told SeafoodSource the Corps’ decision came down to a flat rejection of mining permits that critics have long said were inadequate, incomplete, and rushed.

“The Corps took a hard look at this permit and realized they couldn’t legally issue it because it was so blatantly obvious that it would result in significant degradation,” James told SeafoodSource. “I see it as more of an assessment from the Corps itself than anything tied to Trump.”

The Corps’ statement was celebrated by commercial and sport fishing groups and Native organizations in the area that have been fighting the proposed mine for nearly two decades.

Alannah Hurley, the executive director of the United Tribes of Bristol Bay, said in a statement that no mitigation plan could appease local tribes.

"We are thankful the Corps has come to the same conclusion as the rest of the scientific community, that Pebble will have such severe impacts there is no way to mitigate the destruction it will cause. It is impossible for Pebble to mitigate the devastation this mine will have on our Native cultures, our way of life that has been sustained for thousands of years by the pristine lands and waters of the Bristol Bay watershed,” Hurley said.

U.S. Senators Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan, both Republicans representing Alaska, released statements saying while they advocated for mining in Alaska, they supported the Corps’ decision.

“Throughout this process, I have advocated for the Army Corps and other federal regulatory agencies to conduct a rigorous, fair, science-based review – free of politics – that does not trade one resource for another. I have worked hard to ensure that the voices of all Alaskans – both for and against the Pebble Mine – would be heard, considered, and respected at the highest levels of the federal government … Pebble, like all resource development projects in Alaska, has to pass a high bar – a bar that the Trump administration has determined Pebble has not met. I support this conclusion – based on the best available science and a rigorous, fair process – that a federal permit cannot be issued,” Sullivan’s statement read.

Opponents of the mine are remaining vigilant, saying the project was not yet dead, James said. But she said the Corps’ decision was a significant step toward nixing the project, though the EPA holds veto power for the Pebble Mine under the Clean Water Act, meaning it also must oppose the project to kill it off.

“I am absolutely convinced now that EPA will veto the project. With the fact that our senators said today the project should not be permitted, I think you’ll see everyone on the same page and we’re on the road to permit protection,” SalmonState’s James told SeafoodSource.

However, Pebble Partnership CEO Tom Collier told Mining News North the Corps’ letter did not mean the end of his project.

“The letter does not ask for a delay or pause in the permitting process,” Collier said. "This is the next step in what has been a comprehensive, exhaustive two-and-a-half-year review of the project. Nothing in the letter is a surprise to us or them."

Collier predicted a positive response from the government to the company’s mitigation efforts, and ultimately, that his company expected to receive approval for the mine.

Contributing Editor reporting from Seattle, USA

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