The Trump administration on Wednesday rejected a permit for the controversial Pebble copper and gold mine in Southwest Alaska.
The decision could be a fatal blow for the long-sought, roller-coaster effort to build the giant project near the world’s largest wild sockeye salmon fishery in Bristol Bay.
The mine developers plan to appeal the decision back to federal regulators, but with the opposition of President-elect Joe Biden and many others, the project’s days may be limited. Pebble opponents, including Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, are already discussing an idea to take the mineral deposit off the table from development forever.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has “determined that the applicant’s plan for the discharge of fill material does not comply with Clean Water Act guidelines and concluded that the proposed project is contrary to the public interest,” said Col. Damon Delarosa, the Corps’ Alaska district commander.
Delarosa said the agency’s denial caps a nearly three-year review process of the potential project involving multiple agencies, and was based on all “available facts and complies with existing laws and regulations.”
The news was swiftly praised by groups that have fought Pebble, as well as Alaska’s Republican U.S. senators, who both came out strongly against the project in recent months.
“This is the right decision, reached the right way,” said Murkowski.
“Given the special nature of the Bristol Bay watershed and the fisheries and subsistence resources downstream, Pebble had to meet a high bar so that we do not trade one resource for another,” said Sen. Dan Sullivan. “As I have been saying since August, Pebble did not meet that bar.”
Longtime critics of Pebble called the decision a win for tourism, sportfishing, commercial fishing and Alaska Native villages that need the salmon for food. They said Pebble’s proposal was half-baked and that the mine would have devastated the fishery.
“Good riddance,” said Nelli Williams, Alaska director of Trout Unlimited. “The opposition to this project from all corners of the political spectrum runs strong and deep. The science is clear, the process has played out and there is no way this ill-conceived project can coexist with Bristol Bay salmon.”
“The fact that this permit denial comes from a pro-development administration speaks volumes to the need for strong, permanent protections for the Bristol Bay watershed and all it sustains,” United Tribes of Bristol Bay, a group representing 15 Bristol Bay tribal governments, said in a statement.
The mine is proposed for construction on state land about 200 miles southwest of Anchorage, near headwaters of the Bristol Bay salmon fishery.
[Earlier coverage: Leaked tapes and loose talk tarnished Pebble’s reputation. Can the proposed mine go on?]
John Shively, Pebble Partnership chief executive, called the decision a “lost opportunity” for Alaska and the people from the region. The mine could have produced billions of dollars over its life, hundreds of Alaska jobs and minerals with critical national importance for renewable energy such as copper, the company has said.
The company plans to administratively appeal the Corps decision within 60 days, Pebble officials said. A Pebble spokesman did not answer whether the company would sue the federal government, if the appeal is rejected.
“We are obviously dismayed by today’s news given that the (Corps) had published an Environmental Impact Statement in July that clearly stated the project could successfully co-exist with the fishery and would have provided substantial economic benefit to the communities closest to the deposit,” Shively said. “One of the real tragedies of this decision is the loss of economic opportunities for people living in the area.”
Pebble parent company Northern Dynasty Minerals called the decision “politically motivated” and “fundamentally unsupported by the administrative record as developed” by the Corps during the review process.
[Earlier coverage: Joe Biden says he’ll work to stop Pebble mine if he wins presidency]
Breaking from the other two members of his delegation, Alaska Republican Rep. Don Young said he is disappointed that the fate of a project on state land appears to have been decided by the federal government.
“Now there must be a consideration of how the federal government will compensate the state for the loss of economic potential,” he said. “The proposed mine has always been subject to political intrigue and the whims of outsiders who simply do not understand our state.”
Alaska Native corporations from the village of Iliamna in the area where the mine would be built said in statements that their Native shareholders “disappointed” by the news. They were counting on the project for jobs and to combat shrinking populations in their economically depressed communities, they said.
“This decision came as a shock to our shareholders who were under the impression that this would be a transparent and fair process,” said the statement from officials with Iliamna Natives Limited and Iliamna Development Corp.
Bristol Bay residents who oppose the mine called the denial a victory for the people of the region.
House Speaker Bryce Edgmon, an independent from Dillingham where the project is strongly opposed, said he supports resource development in Alaska, but projects need to be done properly.
“That requires meaningful local engagement and buy-in,” he said.
The project seemed all but dead under former President Barack Obama, when the Environmental Protection Agency in 2014 prepared to veto the project. Major mining companies over the years have also pulled out of the project, leaving Northern Dynasty Minerals, a small Canadian company, alone with a mine that would cost billions of dollars to develop.
But President Donald Trump reversed the Obama administration’s effort four years later, and the project moved steadily forward under Trump until hitting new headwinds this summer. Prominent Republicans, including Murkowski and Sullivan, and even Donald Trump Jr., announced that they opposed the mine.
In September, a conservation group released the so-called “Pebble Tapes,” after secretly employing people to act as potential investors in the mine. Now-former Pebble chief executive Tom Collier and Northern Dynasty head Mark Thiessen were caught on tape discussing what they described as close ties with Murkowski, Sullivan, Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy and the Corps.
The senators, the governor and the Corps have denied the statements as false. But they led to unfavorable headlines in the press for Pebble, renewed opposition to the project by critics and efforts by a U.S. House committee to uncover records about the project.
In late August, the Corps said a Pebble mine with a 20-year life would cause “significant degradation” in the Bristol Bay watershed. The Corps’ parent agency, the U.S. Army, said the project could not be permitted as proposed under the Clean Water Act.
[Pebble mine critics say text messages reveal the state is helping the project. A state official says the texts have been misinterpreted.]
But the Corps left open a single, difficult path for Pebble: submitting a mitigation plan that offset damage the mine would cause to wetlands in the Bristol Bay region. Experts said it was a steep hurdle because it likely meant Pebble would need to somehow create a plan setting aside large amounts of state land for protection in a pristine area that mine critics said had no other major development threats beyond Pebble.
The mitigation plan was determined to be out of compliance with requirements, the Corps’ record of decision said.
It lacked adequate information in multiple areas, including financial assurances and details needed to determine if it was sufficient to offset the mine’s impacts.
An administrative appeal could be made to the Corps for consideration, the agency said in its denial letter to Pebble.
John Budnik, a spokesman with the Corps, could not immediately say early Friday how long the Corps would have to review the appeal.
Pebble faces a potentially difficult road ahead, particularly if the appeal decision drags into the Biden administration. Mine critics are hoping that if needed, Biden will have the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency veto the project, essentially ending the process that began when he was vice president under Obama.
Opponents of the mine are also thinking about an effort to take the mineral deposit off the table forever. Murkowski, using language in an appropriations bill, has proposed an effort aimed at valuing the land in the region, potentially setting the stage for a future land exchange giving the state-owned land to the federal government. That could take the Pebble deposit the table for development for good.
An Alaska-driven conversation about Bristol Bay’s long-term future, including how to preserve the land and consideration of other, potential economic prospects, should be a next step, Murkowski said in an interview Wednesday.
“I hope to have a broader and more open and inclusive process for discussion about exactly what we might want to do to provide for that level of economy in that region that so desperately needs it,” she said.
That effort could give Biden the chance to forever end the threat that Pebble or a similar project will be built in the region, said Steve Cohn, head of the Nature Conservancy in Alaska.
Northern Dynasty Minerals shares sold on the stock market cratered Wednesday, plunging about 50% to about 40 cents a share.