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6 things to know about the Pebble mine proposal as a major federal environmental review comes to a close

An aerial view of a work camp in the area of the proposed Pebble mine in Iliamna, seen on Tuesday, August 27, 2013. (Bill Roth / ADN archive)

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on Friday released an environmental report that could set the stage for federal approval of the controversial Pebble mine in Southwest Alaska.

The report concludes it should not harm the Bristol Bay salmon fishery.

The formal release of the report helps conclude a process launched more than two years ago, after Pebble applied for a permit from the Corps needed to build the copper, gold and molybdenum mine.

In a statement announcing the report’s release, the Corps said, “The final EIS is not a permit decision and does not authorize operation of the mine.”

Pebble Limited Partnership CEO Tom Collier called Friday’s release “a critical milestone.”

“The process has been thorough. It has been thoughtful. I have worked in federal permitting for most of my career and can say with certainty the (Corps) has done a very good job,” Collier said in a written statement.

Pebble’s opponents, who fear the mine will devastate the Bristol Bay salmon fishery, have condemned the review process as rushed, flawed and favorable to the mine developer.

In a joint statement, Alannah Hurley with United Tribes of Bristol Bay, Norm Van Vactor with Bristol Bay Economic Development Corp., Ralph Andersen with Bristol Bay Native Association and Katherine Carscallen with Commercial Fisherman for Bristol Bay said the final review “completely fails to adequately assess the impacts of Pebble on Bristol Bay’s waters, salmon, and people.”

Corps officials say they’ve taken pains to listen to all sides and address the concerns.

The mine would be built near the headwaters of salmon-producing rivers that support the Bristol Bay fishery, about 200 miles southwest of Anchorage. Major facilities would include a gas pipeline for power, a transportation route to the mine site and a port at Cook Inlet.

It could become one of the largest producers of copper and gold in the U.S., Pebble said in a statement Tuesday.

What happens now that the Army Corps’ environmental review of the mine proposal is finished?

The report addresses the project’s environmental impacts and will serve as the baseline document for state and federal agencies considering giving parts of the project the go-ahead.

The Corps, at least 30 days after the report’s release, could use it to issue a permit under the Clean Water Act, allowing damage to wetlands. But the Corps could also reject Pebble’s application, or issue a permit with conditions.

Two other federal permits will be needed.

The U.S. Coast Guard is weighing a permit for a bridge over the Newhalen River, said Mike Heatwole, a Pebble Limited spokesman.

The Coast Guard will join the Corps in a final decision, said David Hobbie, chief of the Corps’ regulatory division in Alaska.

The Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement must also weigh a right-of-way permit for the subsea natural gas pipeline crossing Cook Inlet.

The three permits, if issued, will conclude the federal permitting process for the project, Heatwole said.

A roughly three-year state permitting process would follow federal approval, he said.

After that, construction is expected to take about four years.

Pebble Partnership CEO Tom Collier speaks to reporters Wednesday, Oct. 4, 2017 at Pebble offices in Anchorage. (Loren Holmes / ADN archive)

What do we know about the project’s economic viability?

Over the life of the 20-year permit, the mine would produce an annual average of 318 million pounds of copper and 362,000 ounces of gold, among other valuable metals such as molybdenum, the company said.

The plan will leave about 80% of the ore, containing the valuable minerals, in the ground, Collier said.

Critics say the project won’t be economical unless the mine can one day be expanded, an effort that would require a new permitting process.

It will cost billions of dollars to build the mine and related infrastructure, said Daniel Cheyette, vice president of lands for Bristol Bay Native Corp., the Alaska Native corporation for the region that has long opposed the project.

“This project does not pencil out,” he said.

Amid the long controversy over the project, major mining companies have backed away. That’s left Pebble parent Northern Dynasty Minerals, a small company from Canada, on its own.

Collier on Wednesday said he was not prepared to talk about the mine’s profitability.

“But most of these projects become profitable six to eight years in as they’ve begun to pay off infrastructure costs,” he said.

The company has launched a profit-sharing plan for Bristol Bay residents, though it did not provide detail of potential income. Critics call the plan an attempt to buy support.

Collier said Northern Dynasty recently raised $35 million through the stock market, providing funds to carry the project into next year.

He said economic concerns sparked by COVID-19 have challenged Pebble’s hopes of immediately announcing a new partner. A Corps permit, if issued, will help the effort, he said.

“To the extent we’ll have a quick announcement of a partner is bit up in the air, but there might be,” he said. “We are working hard, and talking to a bunch of folks.”

What is the state of Alaska’s role?

Pebble will need to secure at least 60 state permits, Collier said.

He said a key state permit will guide construction of the dam-like bulk tailings facility that will hold most of the tailings. Tailings are the finely ground waste rock left after the valuable metals are removed.

The facility will essentially be a “dry-storage” facility, he said. Rain, snowmelt or water used to transport tailings through a pipeline will be allowed to escape into a holding pond, where the water will be managed safely, he said.

Water pressure can’t build up in the facility and cause a catastrophic release, he said.

Mine opponents have long raised concerns about risks related to a tailings facility failure. Cheyette said the Corps has not required a detailed engineering design of the tailings facility, and instead has punted that decision to the state permitting process.

The United Tribes of Bristol Bay, representing 15 tribes from the region, does not believe the state permitting process will be fair under Gov. Mike Dunleavy, said Hurley, the group’s executive director.

Protesters opposed to the proposed Pebble mine held a rally outside the Dena'ina Center as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers - Alaska District held the final public hearing for the Pebble Limited Partnership draft environmental impact statement on April 16, 2019. (Bill Roth / ADN archive)

Dunleavy has said he supports a fair regulatory review for the mine. He has not formally expressed a position on it.

The governor has made comments to the White House and with a potential Pebble investor that indicate his support for the mine, Hurley said.

“As we move to the election season, holding elected leadership accountable will be vital,” Hurley said.

In a written statement Friday, Dunleavy’s office said the Corps review “is only one step in a lengthy and complex regulatory process that will take place before any final determinations are made on the proposed Pebble Project. The Pebble Partnership has not even initiated the state permitting process and is not expected to do so until a Record of Decision is released by the Corps of Engineers later this year.”

“When that happens, the Pebble Project will undergo a thorough, fact based analysis by the appropriate state agencies to determine if it meets Alaska’s high standards for environmental protection,” the governor’s office said.

Could Pebble opponents or regulators still stop the mine?

Mine opponents said they’ll continue to fight the mine at every opportunity, including before the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Last year, the agency revoked its 2014 proposal that could have halted the mine.

But the EPA, perhaps under a new presidential administration, could still veto the project, Cheyette said.

Conservation groups have said they also will be looking closely for any shortcomings in the final review and decision.

Collier said he expects a court battle if the Corps issues a permit.

Where does Alaska’s congressional delegation stand on the project?

During the review process, U.S. Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan have stressed that the Corps and Pebble must address the concerns raised by other agencies, including EPA, about shortcomings in the review.

Both lawmakers have pushed for extended comment periods.

Sullivan’s office on Friday the project needs a rigorous, science-based review to ensure salmon aren’t traded for minerals, according to a statement from his office.

“This is a high bar,” Sullivan said. “In the coming days, my staff and I will be reviewing this document to see if the Army Corps has adequately addressed the comments and concerns raised by Alaskans and federal environmental and resource management agencies related to impacts and risks” to fisheries, the environment and subsistence resources.

U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski said the release of the report does not indicate the project will be approved or not. She said the project has high standards to meet to protect Bristol Bay.

“As I begin to review the document, I will continue to engage with both agency officials and stakeholders to hear all perspectives about the project and its anticipated impacts,” Murkowski said. “As I have repeatedly said, and included in my appropriations report language, adverse impacts to Alaska’s world-class salmon fishery and to the ecosystem of Bristol Bay are unacceptable.”

U.S. Rep. Don Young has wanted to see the review process fully completed, his office said in a statement.

Young will review the document thoroughly with Alaska’s interests in mind, his office said.

What is the controversy over the northern route and why does it matter?

The Corps announced in May that an 80-mile road to the mine, traveling north of Iliamna Lake, would be the least damaging environmental route.

The Corps chose that route over another transportation plan, for a year-round ferry across the lake, that Pebble had publicly supported when it launched the review.

Critics say the Corps’ decision was a last-minute move that will support a mine that can one day be expanded. They say the move favors Pebble’s long-term hope to eventually permit a larger mine.

Collier said Pebble has no current plans for expansion. But “it wouldn’t be a huge surprise” if future owners of the mine wanted to expand it, he said.

Mine opponents say recent changes to Pebble’s plan in conjunction with the northern route, along with other changes during the process, are significant and should prompt additional public comment.

Collier said the land-based route should not have been surprise, since it was an alternative on the table throughout the process, he said.

“The folks who are saying this has not been reviewed and this needs another round of public comments, that’s baloney,” he said.

Alaska Native corporations that own land along the proposed road, including Bristol Bay Native Corp., oppose the mine and won’t make their land available for the project, they’ve said.

Collier said Pebble will eventually be able to convince the Native corporations that the project makes sense and won’t harm the fishery, and that they should provide access.

Bristol Bay Native Corp., owner of subsurface lands that would support infrastructure, won’t fold, Cheyette said.

“They’re not going to persuade us,” he said.

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