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Groups accuse Corps of Engineers of last-minute change favoring Pebble mine

A federal agency on Friday announced a preferred transportation route for precious metals leaving the proposed Pebble mine, angering groups opposed to the project who said the decision represents a significant last-minute change that needs public review.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is expected to soon release a final environmental review of the project before determining whether it will issue a permit for the mine.

If built, the open-pit mine would be about 200 miles southwest of Anchorage, straddling salmon-producing headwaters of the valuable Bristol Bay fishery.

Officials with the Corps, speaking in a teleconference with reporters on Friday, said they have made a preliminary determination that a so-called “northern route” is the least environmentally damaging and practical alternative. A northern route would travel over land about 80 miles around the northern coast of Lake Iliamna.

The village of Ilamna near Lake Iliamna. (Bill Roth / ADN archive)

The Corps’ preliminary preferred alternative is different from the original preferred alternative submitted by project owner Pebble Limited Partnership. Pebble submitted its project plans in late 2017, leading to the review. Pebble called for a so-called southern route with an ice-breaking ferry across Lake Iliamna, replacing much of the road.

The Corps asked Pebble “to submit a project description for (the northern route) several weeks ago and we complied,” said Mike Heatwole, a spokesman with Pebble, on Friday. “We will apply for a permit for (the northern route).”

The route includes a pipeline carrying copper and gold concentrate, Heatwole said.

“It dramatically reduces truck traffic,” he said.

In a prepared statement, the Bristol Bay Native Corp. asserted the northern route could support a larger mine, which it views as an indication that Pebble will one day seek additional permits beyond the 20-year permit it’s currently pursuing. The regional Alaska Native corporation has said it won’t make its lands available for the route.

“It is unacceptable for (Pebble) to make such a significant change in its plans after the completion of the preliminary final environmental impact statement,” said Dan Cheyette, vice president of lands for Bristol Bay Native Corp.

“(The northern route) has not been vetted and scrutinized by both the public and cooperating agencies on the same level as other transportation routes," he said in a prepared statement.

A supplemental environmental impact statement should be issued at the very least, Cheyette said.

This isn’t the first time project details have changed since the environmental review began, other mine opponents said.

“The decision is another attempt to streamline and do things behind closed doors, so the public can’t engage,” said Alannah Hurley with United Tribes of Bristol Bay.

“This is about Pebble pushing for a bigger mine under the guise of the smaller plan," said Rachel James with SalmonState, a conservation group. “This is a con game, a giant bait and switch, and the Army Corps is in on the scam: analyze for one option and allow for another.”

Asked whether the road route would support a larger mine, Heatwole with Pebble responded that any future expansion of the mine would have to go through an additional permitting process.

The preliminary decision was made as part of the requirement to select the least environmentally damaging and practical alternative, said John Budnik, a spokesman with the Corps.

The “final details” of the alternative will be outlined in a record of decision that will determine whether the agency issues a permit, a permit with conditions or denies Pebble’s application, he said.

That decision will come after a final environmental review is released, anticipated next month, he said.

Budnik said public input during the environmental review has been completed.

Heatwole, with Pebble, said alternatives were analyzed as part of the draft environmental review, released in February 2019. The Corps accepted public comments about the alternatives.

Tom Collier, chief executive of Pebble, said the announcement is “good news” and shows the Corps is moving closer to releasing a final environmental review.

“This is a (Corps) decision and shows the permitting process working as designed to present the agencies’ views of the least environmentally damaging option," he said.

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