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Change of course for proposed Pebble mine transportation corridor reignites access issues

Aerial view of the village of Newhalen and the mouth of the Newhalen river on the edge of Lake Iliamna on Tuesday, August 27, 2013. The Bristol Bay watershed supports all five species of Pacific salmon found in North America and accounts for almost half the world's supply of wild red salmon. (Bill Roth/Anchorage Daily News)

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has changed the course of the Pebble project, but what it means for the fate of the highly contentious development remains to be seen as area landowners vow to prohibit access.

David Hobbie, Army Corps of Engineers Alaska District regulatory chief, confirmed during a May 22 conference call with reporters that the lead permitting agency had changed the project’s transportation corridor from a southerly route across Iliamna Lake to one along the lake’s northern shore that also ends at a new site for a west Cook Inlet port.

The total re-route is part of the least environmentally damaging practicable alternative, or LEDPA, identified by Army Corps Alaska officials, and combines aspects of other development alternatives evaluated in the draft environmental impact statement released in February 2019, according to Hobbie.

Other details of the LEDPA will be discussed in the Corps’ record of decision that will follow the final EIS, which is currently scheduled to be published later this summer.

Numerous groups opposing the project allege the north road route is a late-stage move to appeal to the Pebble Partnership’s ultimate desire to build a much larger 78-year mine instead of the 20-year mine plan the company is advancing because the Iliamna Lake ferry that is part of the south alternative could not support the larger operation.

That’s in part because an April 24 memo from representatives of AECOM — the global engineering firm hired to write the EIS — indicates Pebble changed its preferred alternative from the southern ferry route to the northern road-only transportation corridor from the mine site to the port.

However, Hobbie said Pebble changed its plans to conform to what the Corps had already determined: that the north road-only corridor was ultimately the best option for the environment.

The Corps’ decision was based on widespread public concerns that the year-round ferry across the massive lake could disrupt winter travel across lake ice for residents of lake villages and impact Iliamna’s unique population of freshwater seals, among other issues, according to Hobbie.

“We did exactly what the public asked us to,” he said of the Corps amending the plan for the project.

Pebble leaders routinely stress that the company has applied for permits for its 20-year mine plan and any subsequent plans expand the project would require a whole new round of permitting while Pebble’s parent company, Vancouver-based Northern Dynasty Minerals Ltd., has advertised the project as a multi-generational opportunity and cites the metal resources in the total Pebble deposit — not just those that would be extracted via the 20-year mine — in its investor pitches.

Pebble CEO Tom Collier noted in a prepared statement that the north route was Pebble’s preferred option for most of the project’s history and said the company initially selected the ferry route because it was thought regulators would prefer the smaller wetlands footprint it offers.

“The choice between the two transportation alternatives for Pebble has always been a close call,” Collier said. “Now that the (Army Corps of Engineers), working closely with the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other cooperating agencies, has indicated that the northern corridor is the preferred approach we look forward to seeing the final EIS for the project.”

He added that the company also supports using a pipeline instead of trucks to haul concentrate from the mine site to tidewater. According to Northern Dynasty, the pipeline would cut truck traffic on the mine access road by roughly half.

However, the Corps’ change of plans does not account for one potentially significant complicating factor for Pebble; the landowners along the north route, at least for now, want nothing to do with the project.

Alaska Native village corporation Pedro Bay Corp. owns much of the land along Iliamna’s northeastern corner and Iliaska Environmental LLC is a majority owner of a rock quarry at Diamond Point, the new location for the Cook Inlet port needed to supply materials to the mine and export its metals.

Iliaska Environmental is owned by the Igiugig Village Council and along with Pedro Bay Corp. and Bristol Bay Native Corp., which controls subsurface rights to the village corporation lands, strongly opposes the project.

The Igiugig Village Council issued a statement May 25 contending the Diamond Point quarry is a “critical component” of the north route that Pebble will not have access to.

“(Pebble’s) plan for Diamond point presented in the EIS does not fit with our plans for Diamond Point, and should not be considered an acceptable alternative,” the statement reads.

In contrast, the south ferry route allowed Pebble to utilize lands owned by Alaska Peninsula Corp., which the junior mining company has an access agreement with, for the roads and ferry terminals on the north and south sides of the lake to access a port at Amakdedori on Cook Inlet.

Pebble spokesman Mike Heatwole wrote via email that the company intends to work with each of the landowners along the north route and believes “we will be able to gain the right-of-way needed to build the transportation corridor.”

Pedro Bay Corp. CEO Matt McDaniel wrote to Corps of Engineers Pebble project manager Shane McCoy last July to reiterate that the company “has not, and will not, consent to the Pebble Limited Partnership’s use of its lands for the Pebble project.”

As such, the north route should not be considered practicable in the final EIS, McDaniel wrote.

McDaniel’s letter quickly spurred a memo from the Corps to Pebble requesting an analysis of feasible northern corridor options around Pedro Bay Corp. lands, but a consultant to Pebble determined there isn’t one.

While Pedro Bay Corp. owns most of the land along the northeast portion of Iliamna Lake; there is a mountainous strip of state lands to the north that is bordered by Lake Clark National Park and Preserve. The brief alternative route report concluded that a route around Pedro Bay lands would require up to 15 miles of tunneling or “extreme mountain road construction” and would be much longer than the proposed route across Pedro Bay lands.

“Given the adverse nature of the terrain that exists north of PBC land, and the constraints imposed by design criteria for a road to serve the proposed Pebble mine; it has been determined that construction and operation of a road that would pass north (of) PBC lands is not practical or reasonable,” the July 2019 consultant report states.

Several other Cook Inlet-area Native corporations including CIRI also own parcels around Diamond Point.

BBNC leaders have also criticized Corps officials for advancing the north route as viable despite the landowners’ consistent opposition to the project.

BBNC Lands and Natural Resources Vice President Dan Cheyette wrote in a May 21 letter to Corps of Engineers Alaska officials that the LEDPA must be the least environmentally damaging development alternative but must also be practicable, and a route across lands owned by entities that don’t support Pebble is not.

“In defining the LEDPA for the Pebble project, BBNC demands that the Corps remove from consideration all alternatives that would require use of its subsurface or surface estate, as our lands are unavailable to (Pebble),” Cheyette wrote. “This includes the eastern terminus of the northern transportation corridor at Diamond Point,” which is also partly owned by a BBNC subsidiary.

Cheyette and other opponents to Pebble argue that Corps officials should draft another EIS that would focus the public’s attention on the updated plan for the project.

The Corps’ Hobbie said there are no plans for a new or supplemental Pebble EIS because the LEDPA doesn’t contain anything that wasn’t in the first draft.

“There’s nothing in the current LEDPA that has not been evaluated in the EIS,” Hobbie said.

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