Following a flood of comments and a report addressing pollution concerns at the proposed Pebble mine, Alaska resource managers have temporarily delayed a decision over whether to approve a new land-use permit for the project and instead extended Pebble's old permits.
Pebble critics hope the delay means the Alaska Department of Natural Resources will use the extra time to implement stricter cleanup guidelines before the 2017-2018 hard-rock exploration and reclamation permit is approved.
"If it means they'll actually take a closer look and address our very real concerns, then we're happy at least that that's happening," said Alannah Hurley, executive director of the United Tribes of Bristol Bay, representing 14 tribal governments in the Southwest Alaska region opposed to the massive gold, copper and molybdenum mine. "We've pushed publicly for this administration to hold Pebble accountable for the mess they left."
A Pebble Limited Partnership official on Tuesday shot back, saying it has worked closely with the state to meet every requirement and properly restore the land.
DNR on Friday extended by 90 days — until March 31 — the existing exploration and reclamation permits approved for the Pebble prospect. The existing permits, which Pebble hopes to consolidate into one, would have expired at the end of the year.
The additional three months will give state reviewers time to properly analyze more than 1,000 comments associated with Pebble's request for the new permits, said Brent Goodrum, director of the Alaska Division of Mining, Land and Water.
But the extension would also carry into the opening days of the Trump administration. Mine officials say they are hopeful the incoming administration will look favorably on the mine, which has faced fierce opposition in salmon-rich Bristol Bay and around the world.
"There are a number of other comments or subjects raised that will require staff time to sift through and contemplate what type of stipulations we might consider in the authorizations," Goodrum said.
He said many of the comments were "form letters," while others were original.
Though the word "exploration" is part of the proposed permit's title, Pebble's application seeks approval to continue the maintenance and reclamation work it has been pursuing in recent years, Goodrum said. That includes storing equipment or continuing to touch-up land requiring restoration after years of exploration between 2004 and 2012.
If Pebble wanted to conduct exploration activities, such as drilling, the company would be required to submit a new permit application, which would launch its own public process, Goodrum said.
"If they were going to do anything other than what they are currently doing, that would be a different dialogue," he said.
Canadian mining company Northern Dynasty Ltd. owns Pebble Limited.
After drilling about 1,350 bore holes in the tundra to evaluate its prospect, Pebble has focused much of its resources in recent years battling the Environmental Protection Agency in court. Pebble has accused the agency of working with conservation groups, Native organizations and other mine opponents to derail the project, after the agency in 2014 decided the mine would severely damage the Bristol Bay watershed and salmon industry.
Pebble is hopeful a Trump White House will allow it to apply for an Army Corps of Engineers permit issued under the Clean Water Act, reversing the opposition from the EPA. The permit would allow dredged or fill material, such as gravel, to be placed into wetlands, lakes and streams.
The state's extension of the land-use permits follows the November release of a report by the Center for Science in Public Participation of Bozeman, Montana, asserting that wells leaked, and land has been left contaminated. The report, commissioned by United Tribes, cited deficiencies with Pebble and state mine-regulators for the problems.
Mike Heatwole, Pebble's vice president for public affairs, said the company meets all state requirements. The report "mischaracterized" the situation on the ground by using old data at sites that were updated by Pebble over the summer, he said.
"We run a compliant program at our site," he said.
Goodrum said the state will look closely at the report's findings in the next field season, once the snow has melted and the ground is visible.
"We'll quite likely evaluate areas raised in the report," he said. "We're considering all the public's input."
The public notice followed a decision by the Alaska Supreme Court in 2015 favoring tribes and other Pebble adversaries.
The court ordered DNR to grant a 30-day comment period for parties to the lawsuit after the company applied for the new land-use permit in October. But the state went beyond the ruling by soliciting comments from the general public.
"This is the first time they've ever taken public comment on any of existing permits that I know of," said Hurley, of United Tribes. "For the first time, the permit applications aren't getting rubber-stamped."