A new version of a federal environmental review for the proposed Pebble mine has angered the mine’s opponents and encouraged its developer.
The Army Corps of Engineers will use the final review to decide whether to give the controversial mine a key permit it needs before it can be built.
The Corps had provided the report to several cooperating agencies involved in the review process, such as state and federal agencies and tribal governments. The Anchorage Daily News obtained an executive summary of the Corps’ preliminary final environmental review that was leaked to reporters.
The report could foreshadow what’s to come.
Tom Collier, chief executive of developer Pebble Limited Partnership, is pleased. He said the report’s release, and its major conclusions, indicate the company will see a decision in its favor by mid-2020.
Pebble opponents that have seen it are not happy. They say the proposed copper and gold mine in Southwest Alaska will threaten the Bristol Bay region’s valuable salmon fishery, and they will go court to stop it.
On Tuesday, groups from the Bristol Bay region issued statements saying the document does not address local concerns raised in Congress about shortcomings in the review process. U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski in particular criticized the process, previously saying the mine shouldn’t be permitted unless the Corps addresses data “gaps” raised by the Environmental Protection Agency and other entities.
Very little has changed between the draft environmental review issued last year and the preliminary final review, said Alannah Hurley with the United Tribes of Bristol Bay, representing 15 tribes from the region.
The Corps still has not analyzed a tailings dam failure, she said.
“That’s outrageous,” she said. “That’s one of our biggest concerns, when you store toxic waste at the headwaters of the last great wild sockeye salmon fisheries on earth."
She said groups will sue to stop the mine. The United Tribes of Bristol Bay and other anti-Pebble groups have already sued the EPA to try to reestablish one roadblock against the mine.
John Budnik, a Corps spokesman, said there have been several revisions to the draft report. He said it addresses three spill scenarios.
But the report says the Corps did not model the effect of an “extremely unlikely” catastrophic failure of a tailings dam, like what occurred at the Mount Polley mine in Canada in 2014. Public commenters had requested such a review. Tailings are a mine’s finely ground waste material.
The report says the Corps determined that modeling for such an event was “inappropriate.“ Pebble has proposed a design with “water-reduction measures” for the tailings, such as drainage and air flow. The facility would have less chance of failure compared to a breach of “water-inundated tailings,” such as at the Mount Polley mine, the report says.
"The bulk (tailings storage facility) would remain in place in perpetuity in ‘dry’ closure, further reducing the long-term spill risk,” the report says.
Commercial Fishermen for Bristol Bay also said the preliminary final report is insufficient.
“The preliminary final EIS is more of the same; this administration’s priority is a purely political process that completely ignores well-documented science and the voices of Alaskans," said Katherine Carscallen, director of the fishermen’s group, in a statement.
She said the report severely underestimates the risks of the mine to salmon and other resources.
Collier with Pebble said Tuesday it’s “absolutely false" to say there have been only small changes to the preliminary final document. The Corps has held numerous meetings and delayed a final decision to address concerns with the draft report, he said.
Also, Pebble has changed the design of the proposed port facility and roads and bridges to reduce impacts to waters and wetlands, as spelled out a compensatory mitigation plan it has submitted to the Corps, he said.
It has proposed plans to help protect waters in the region, including improving wastewater management in three communities and taking steps to improve salmon passage in 8.5 miles of streams.
The Corps’ major conclusions remain the same, Collier said. The report shows the mine would not hurt the Bristol Bay salmon fishery, he said.
He pointed to a section on commercial fishing. It says that under normal operations, development alternatives would “not be expected to have a measurable effect on fish numbers and result in long-term changes to the health of the commercial fisheries in Bristol Bay."
Collier pointed out a section on subsistence that says, “Overall, impacts to fish and wildlife would not be expected to impact harvest levels, because no population-level decrease in resources would be anticipated."
Carscallen, with the fishing group, said Collier is wrong to say there won’t be harm to the fishery, The report says the development’s footprint will harm 100 miles of salmon stream, she said.
The report indicates the final decision will be in Pebble’s favor, Collier said.
“That’s the only conclusion you can reach,” he said.