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Pebble mine would cause ‘significant degradation’ in Bristol Bay region and can’t be permitted as proposed, Trump administration says

Workers with the Pebble mine project test drill in the Bristol Bay region of Alaska, near the village of Iliamma. (AP Photo/Al Grillo, File 2007)

The Trump administration said Monday that the Pebble mine in Southwest Alaska, “as currently proposed,” cannot be permitted under the federal Clean Water Act.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers ordered the developer of the copper and gold prospect to provide a mitigation plan to offset the high levels of damage the project would cause.

The agency’s demand, laid out in a two-page letter to James Fueg, a vice president with mine developer Pebble Limited Partnership, sets a tall hurdle for the project to overcome before it can be developed, according to people familiar with the project.

The announcement slows the momentum the controversial mine proposal has built under the Trump administration, potentially punting Pebble’s ability to secure a key federal permit until after the presidential election.

The Corps’ letter came shortly after the president’s son, Donald Trump Jr., said he is against the mine, and it drew praise from Alaska Republican Sens. Dan Sullivan and Lisa Murkowski, who have become increasingly critical of Pebble’s proposal. Alaska Republican Rep. Don Young in statement said while it’s not an outright veto, the request from the Corps is a “steep hill” for Pebble to climb.

But the Corps’ request wasn’t widely viewed as the project’s end. While many longtime Pebble opponents applauded the announcement, they still called on the Environmental Protection Agency to step in and halt the mine.

And Tom Collier, chief executive of Pebble Limited, pushed back on suggestions that the project has been hobbled by the Corps’ request.

“We don’t see this as a huge hurdle, or a huge challenge,” he said in an interview Monday.

Collier said the Corps’ letter has long been expected and is a normal part of the regulatory process as the agency considers issuing a key development permit.

Pebble has been working on a mitigation plan addressing the requirements, Collier said.

“A clear reading of the letter shows it is entirely unrelated to recent tweets about Pebble and one-sided news shows,” Collier said in a statement. “The White House had nothing to do with the letter nor is it the show-stopper described by several in the news media over the weekend.”

“The letter does not ask for a delay or pause in the permitting process,” Collier said. “In fact, it clearly states that the (Corps) is continuing its work toward a Record of Decision for the project. This is the next step in what has been a comprehensive, exhaustive two-and-a-half-year review of the project. Nothing in the letter is a surprise to us or them.”

The Corps’ announcement follows recent requests from prominent supporters of President Donald Trump, including Trump Jr., to halt the project because of the pristine nature of the region and the valuable salmon fishery there. Fox News host Tucker Carlson also hosted a show recently criticizing the project.

The mine would be built about 200 miles southwest of Anchorage, at a location that straddles headwaters of the wild salmon fishery. Pebble Limited has said the prospect could become one of the most significant copper and gold mines in the U.S., annually producing 318 million pounds of copper and 362,000 ounces of gold for 20 years. That makes the project worth well over $1 billion annually at current prices.

The Corps could have issued a permit over the weekend, but it gave Pebble Limited 90 days to submit its mitigation plan.

In a joint statement on Monday, Alaska’s senators said they support mining but that the Pebble project hasn’t met the required standard.

“I understand, respect, and support this decision,” said Murkowski, chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. “I agree that a permit should not be issued.”

Sullivan said he supported a fair review of the project, after the EPA in 2014 moved to halt it under President Barack Obama before the project could undergo that review. The EPA under Trump pulled back its threat over the project.

“I support this conclusion — based on the best available science and a rigorous, fair process — that a federal permit cannot be issued,” Sullivan said.

Sullivan and Murkowski have supported other major projects in Alaska and in 2017 set the stage for opening of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling. They have questioned the Corps’ review but have not previously opposed the project.

In a separate statement, Young said he was concerned because the project is on state land and he believes Alaska should have the right to manage its own lands.

“From day one, this project has been subject to the political whims, decisions, and opinions of federal agencies and bureaucrats who disagree with how we Alaskans choose to live and work,” he said. “... If we allow this to continue, then the federal government has a moral and economic obligation to compensate our state for stifling Alaska’s job growth potential.”

A spokesman for Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy had not responded to a request for comment on the Corps’ decision on Monday evening.

Dunleavy has not issued a formal position on the mine, though Pebble’s critics say he has taken steps that helped its progress.

The Corps, in its letter Monday, said it has determined that “discharges at the mine site would cause unavoidable adverse impacts to aquatic resources” in the Bristol Bay region.

The agency also preliminarily determined that “those adverse impacts would result in significant degradation to those aquatic resources,” according to the letter, signed by from David Hobbie, chief of the Corps’ regulatory division in Alaska.

For the damage at the mine site, the Corps wants “in-kind” mitigation within the Koktuli River watershed where the mine would be built, the letter said.

Mitigation can include restoring damaged habitat or creating new habitat.

One of the challenges for Pebble will be finding damaged wetlands that need protecting in the pristine region, in order to help offset the sprawling damage the mine would cause to other wetlands, said Jason Metrokin, president of Bristol Bay Native Corp., which opposes the mine.

“To trade out one area of land for another in an in-kind fashion we don’t think is possible,” he said.

“This decision from the Corps today may not end the project, but we think it is a significant setback that again shows how so many stakeholders, including investors, believe this is the wrong mine in the wrong place,” he said.

Collier, a former chief of staff to Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt under President Bill Clinton, said by phone on Monday that he “took a deep breath” when he heard at least six weeks ago that the Corps would require in-watershed mitigation for the mine site impacts.

Companies often have the opportunity to pursue mitigation projects in regions removed from the proposed development area. But not this time.

“There’s no question that usually there’s more flexibility than we’ve been given here,” Collier said. “But this is also not entirely unusual either. I’ve worked on hundreds of permitting projects, and it’s not unusual to have a requirement that mitigation be in-region, and that’s what we have here.”

Deantha Skibinski, executive director of the Alaska Miners Association, said the Corps is simply asking for more information from the project, a typical part of the process.

“Some of the communications out there are certainly framed as if the Corps has rejected Pebble Mine,” she said. “I can’t stress enough, I would not read it that way.”

The Corps completed a two-and-a-half-year environmental review last month, concluding that under normal operations, the mine would not be expected to “result in long-term changes to the health of the commercial fisheries in Bristol Bay.”

On Monday, the Corps said Pebble must provide a mitigation plan that can offset the damage from all direct and indirect impacts at the mine, according to its letter.

At the mine site, those impacts add up to 2,825 acres of wetlands, 133 acres of open waters, and 130 miles of streams, the Corps’ letter said. Impacts from a road and port site along western Cook Inlet would add up to an additional 460 acres of wetlands, 231 acres of open waters, and 56 miles of streams.

The stock price of Pebble Limited’s parent company, Northern Dynasty Minerals, fell about 40% on Monday.

Critics have complained that the Corps has taken a soft approach toward the project during the review process.

Joel Reynolds, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, said on Monday the agency has finally set a high standard.

“Now that the Corps has finally set the bar that the Clean Water Act and science require, Northern Dynasty can’t meet it,” he said.

Mine opponent Alannah Hurley with United Tribes of Bristol Bay said there is no way to offset the mine’s impacts.

“It is impossible for Pebble to mitigate the devastation this mine will have on our Native cultures, our way of life that has been sustained for thousands of years by the pristine lands and waters of the Bristol Bay watershed,” she said. “Pebble should not move forward in this process and should not be built.”

Despite what they view as a high bar set by the Corps, Hurley and other Pebble opponents still called on EPA to intervene and veto the project using its authority under the Clean Water Act.

Collier said that Pebble intends to produce a compensatory mitigation plan that will “preserve enough land so that multiples of the number of impacted wetlands acres are preserved. Additional mitigation will also be provided for the transportation corridor.”

He would not disclose general details about Pebble’s plan.

Pebble Limited has been “working on the details of a plan with the (Army Corps) and the state of Alaska since earlier in the summer. We have had crews in the field near the site since the end of July conducting additional wetlands surveys to provide us with additional information to include in our plan,” Collier said.

“Based on our understanding of the substance of the letter, our discussions with the state, our substantial work in the field and our discussions with the USACE we believe our final Comprehensive Management Plan submission will be submitted within weeks and will satisfy all of the requirements of the letter,” Collier said.

Anyone suggesting a different opinion is ignorant of the extensive work Pebble has done, Collier said.

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