The Pebble Limited Partnership is continuing to advance its controversial mining project near Bristol Bay by forging ahead with its development plan, all while ignoring the voices of most Alaskans.
For more than a decade, Pebble has been trying to sell Bristol Bay on the idea of a major gold and copper mine at the headwaters of the world's largest sockeye fishery. Each step of the way, scientific evidence has indicated that this risky project would be profoundly detrimental to commercial, sport, and subsistence fisheries. Now, Pebble is trying to ride a wave of political and financial momentum to build its proposed mine. This, despite the overwhelming opposition from Bristol Bay residents and Alaskans from across the state. Each Alaskan has the right and responsibility to weigh in on projects that impact our lands and our residents.
That time has come again.
In February, the state Legislature's House Resources Committee heard more than six hours of testimony on the proposed Pebble project and its permitting process. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the lead permitting agency for this project, boldly states that it should have a completed Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) by early 2020. Meanwhile, DNR Commissioner Andy Mack told the House Resources Committee that the Army Corps completion schedule for the EIS is an exceptionally quick one. And while Pebble has applied for permits to discharge fill material and perform work within U.S. waters — which it would need to build its mine — the company hasn't yet applied for the dozens of state permits needed to see the project through.
The application submitted by Pebble does not protect Bristol Bay salmon, and the company is operating on an accelerated schedule for this type of major resource development project. The Pebble permitting process is akin to a runaway train speeding downhill, and the Army Corps is laying the tracks. The speed and audacity of the project is certainly disconcerting.
Former State Senate President Rick Halford has noted that, by appearances, the Army Corps is pushing an accelerated project based on an assumption of state support to use state land. Commissioner Mack noted that this particular process — where regulators are tasked with assessing a project that depends upon approval of the project's transportation corridor — isn't something he has yet evaluated. As Mack stated at the February hearings, "I don't think the (Army Corps) has the ability to truly evaluate what that means until they sit down with the state and understand what that corridor is and what the state has to say about that area of the project."
Given these challenges, Mack was clear about what the state must do in the face of this expedited process: "I think what we have to do as a state … is stand up and participate in that process and make sure our voice, whatever that voice is, is fully heard."
Note that Pebble already has a track record of not finishing what it has started in Bristol Bay, evidenced by DNR's requiring enhanced exploration bonding. This decision was based on the likelihood that the project will fail for unknown reasons, thereby leaving the state responsible — logistically and financially — for cleaning up the site.
The company's statements about the project emphasize that it isn't doing due diligence. Northern Dynasty CEO, Ron Thiessen, has said the project site "is located so far up the line that water really only flows sparingly in spring when the snow melts." This statement and others like it (Thiessen said that the Pebble site is in the middle of nowhere, comparing it to Kansas) reflect Pebble's lack of awareness of the science and economics of Bristol Bay. Thiessen ignores the hydrology of the project site, which supports two major river systems, including the robust commercial, sport, and subsistence fisheries of the region.
Meanwhile, Pebble is also trying to co-opt laws, such as the FAST Act, that move surface transportation projects forward; here, this would conveniently include the mining industry. The FAST Act is intended to help provide long-term funding for surface transportation projects. Now, Pebble wants that act to be used to expedite its permitting process. We need the state of Alaska's natural resource managers and Alaska's congressional delegation to oppose this move.
I, for one, plan to continue holding the state accountable for a thorough vetting of this project. And I implore Alaskans to join me. We must demand that the federal permitting process not overshadow our own, and that the state be allowed to move deliberately through its own due diligence. The effort to build a world-class gold mine in Bristol Bay must go through a rigorous permitting process to prevent an equally world-class disaster, and our state regulators must be at the forefront of this effort.
Public comments on the Pebble Mine may be submitted at: https://www.pebbleprojecteis.com/publiccomments/new through June 29, 2018.
Rep. Andy Josephson is an Anchorage Democrat and co-chair of the House Resources Committee.