Fight renewed over Pebble Mine in Bristol Bay, Alaska

Opposition is growing to a renewed effort to launch a massive mining project near Bristol Bay, Alaska, home to the world’s largest sockeye salmon run. 

Mining conglomerate Pebble Limited Partnership applied for a permit in December 2017 for an open pit copper, gold, and molybdenum mine that would sit near critical headwaters that feed the Bristol Bay fishery. Opponents say the Pebble Mine would undermine the area's pristine habitat – a calling card of the Bristol Bay brand – and that a tailings dam failure could prove catastrophic to the fishery. The most recent public opinion poll by the BBNC shows 58 percent of Alaskans oppose the mine, with 33 percent supporting it. 

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers released a Draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) on 20 February, 2019, but the wide-ranging opposition in Alaska and beyond has lambasted the document. 

“People around here understand on a very visceral level the importance of fisheries in general and Bristol Bay in particular. Commercial fishermen, sport fishermen, tribal entities that are interested in subsistence, biologists; we’re not always aligned, but we’re certainly aligned on this particular issue,” said Daniel Cheyette, the vice president of lands and natural resources for the Bristol Bay Native Corporation (BBNC). 

Norm Van Vactor, the CEO of the Bristol Bay Economic Development Corporation, said the EIS is incomplete. 

“We’re extremely disappointed by the EIS. The document itself is a joke. It’s not based in science and appears to be written, for the most part, by the Pebble Partnership. There’s no dam breakage assessment. There’s no closure assessment. It’s just very disappointing,” said Van Vactor. 

The EIS projects just 20 years of mining activity, a timeline that detractors say does not represent the intended scope of the project. 

“After 20 years is when they get to the richest part of the ore body, and who in their right mind would walk away from 88 percent of the ore body?” Van Vactor said, adding that Pebble Limited Partnership is talking to their investors about a 75-year mine plan.

“What Pebble Limited Partnership is selling to Alaskans and to the regulatory world is just not what will happen in the real world. These claims about that they will coexist with the fisheries, that people have nothing to fear about our tailings dams, and that they will improve habitat, it’s just the hubris we always see from the mining world,” Cheyette said.

People who oppose the mine would like to see, at the very least, a drafted assessment that lines up with a more realistic timeline for mining in area, proposing a 100-year assessment. That length of assessment is likely to see an increased probability of a tailing dam failure.

There is also grumbling about what people see as a short comment period. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is in the midst of a 90-day window for comments that will close on 30 May, 2019. Several public hearings are scheduled before the deadline, but the bulk of Bristol Bay’s fishermen are scattered around the country and do not convene in Alaska until early June. 

Van Vactor said they are pushing U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) to negotiate for a 90-day extension to the comment period, and would ideally like a 270-day window for comments. Pebble Mine opponents also see the Pebble Limited Partnership’s promise of jobs as disingenuous, pointing out that while the group says it will create 750 local jobs, Bristol Bay’s salmon fishery already provides 14,000 jobs, some or all of which may be endangered by the mine.

Pebble Mine still must receive the go-ahead from the Army Corps of Engineers and the Environmental Protection Agency, and obtain further permits from the federal and state governments. And even if the project gets the necessary permits, Pebble Limited Partnership may run into access issues. All three proposed access roads to Pebble Mine pass through lands belonging to various Alaska native corporations. 

“All these proposed roads cross subsurface lands that are owned by our corporation, for example. And I can only speak for the BBNC, but to the extent that they would be invading our subsurface lands in building roads or the pipeline, we believe they would need our permission, and that has not been given, nor is it something we intend to give,” Cheyette added. 

The mine proposal includes a 188-mile natural gas pipeline from the Kenai Peninsula that would cross Cook Inlet, along with a 270-megawatt power plant. 

While many Alaska fisheries have seen recent troubling downturns, Bristol Bay has posted three straight seasons of historically large runs, culminating in a 2018 season that was the most lucrative in fishery’s history. Fishermen in Bristol Bay in last season netted over USD 280 million (EUR 249.4 million) in ex-vessel value, nearly half of the statewide ex-vessel total of USD 595 million (EUR 530 million).  


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