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The Pebble mine review cannot be rushed. Here’s why.

  • Author: Norm Van Vactor
    | Opinion
    , Ralph Andersen
    | Opinion
    , Jason Metrokin
    | Opinion
  • Updated: February 22, 2019
  • Published February 22, 2019

This is an aerial view of a work camp in the area of the proposed Pebble Mine in Iliamna, Alaska, seen on Tuesday, August 27, 2013. (Bill Roth / ADN archive)

The Alaska Senate majority recently conducted a poll to gauge Alaskans’ opinions on a wide-ranging set of issues. One question was whether Alaskans supported or opposed the proposed Pebble mine. Though the question assumed that “all environmental safeguards are met” for the mine, 61 percent of the 7,407 Alaska respondents still opposed its development.

This result should come as no surprise. Alaskans know that the proposed Pebble mine is unique among Alaska resource development projects because of its acute risk to the largest wild sockeye salmon fishery in the world and the economies and cultures sustained by those salmon.

The Senate majority poll result also demonstrates why the upcoming review of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Draft Environmental Impact Statement for the Pebble project is so important. Released on Feb. 20, the draft EIS is intended to be a comprehensive document that examines the environmental impacts associated with the construction, operation and closure of the proposed mine.

The public comment period for the draft EIS that is now underway is a very important period in the permitting process. Alaskans deserve a meaningful opportunity to review the draft EIS and its more than 360,000 pages of associated documents and provide input to the Corps. This is why our organizations are asking the Corps to provide a comment period of not less than 270 days to review, analyze, discuss, and comment on the draft EIS.

Given the massive size of the proposed mine, its sensitive location, and the potentially acid-generating nature of the ore, Pebble Limited Partnership’s proposal is not only risky but also extremely complicated. In fact, some elements of its proposal appear to be unprecedented in the world of hard rock mining. Further, the Partnership presents a moving target, as it continues to revise its proposal in fundamental ways, including increasing the quantity of material to be mined and adding transportation alternatives. The Corps must provide us time to familiarize ourselves with the proposal, analyze and understand the science behind it, and consider impacts and alternatives.

An additional challenge to any review of Pebble’s proposal is that the Corps is proceeding even though Pebble has not applied for the more than 60 other local, state, and federal permits necessary to develop and operate the mine. The review processes associated with these other permits would help provide a better understanding of the current proposal. This is a fact acknowledged by Pebble’s National Environmental Policy Act contractor, who said that a state-required reclamation plan from Pebble “is potentially essential to a reasoned choice among the alternatives.”

The public comment period for the Pebble draft EIS should also account for the incredibly busy summer and fall fishing and hunting seasons that consume the lives of nearly all Bristol Bay residents. A minimum 270-day comment period, with regional public hearings conducted in the latter portion after the summer fishing season ends, would lessen these concerns.

After more than a decade of self-imposed delay, it is clear why Pebble now values time over thoroughness. Shortly after the 2017 presidential inauguration, Ron Thiessen, CEO of Pebble’s Canadian parent company Northern Dynasty Minerals, said the Trump administration has a “desire to permit Pebble.” Completing the permitting process while a friendly administration occupies the White House may explain why Pebble is spending millions for Washington, D.C., lobbying - efforts that would be unnecessary if the project could stand on its own merits.

Pebble also likely thinks a quick permit decision will help it secure yet another financial partner, which is necessary, given that six previous mining companies involved in Pebble have left the project. Finally, Pebble chief executive Tom Collier stands to earn an “extraordinary bonus” of up to $12.5 million if Pebble receives quick approval from the Corps.

None of these realities justifies the Corps advancing a public review and comment period that would preclude meaningful public involvement. There is no law or federal policy that compels the Corps to put speed over substance on a project that could be disastrous for Bristol Bay. The Corps should stop making speed a priority in its review.

We are not the only ones who believe that a project that so fundamentally threatens our salmon fishery cannot be fast-tracked through an incomplete and rushed permitting process. Alaska and federal leaders have reinforced the importance of the Corps engaging in an especially rigorous and open permitting process for the proposed Pebble mine. Sen. Lisa Murkowski previously stated, “(w)e must ensure that all relevant stakeholders are given ample opportunity to consider the information provided, as well as sufficient opportunity and forum to provide comment on it.” Former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt stated the “permit application must clear a high bar.” Lastly, Gov. Mike Dunleavy has said “science is essential to guide us. … Alaskans should … insist that our permitting process not be short-circuited.”

We urge the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to not arbitrarily rush this process. Give the public at least 270 days to review and provide input on PLP’s proposal for Pebble mine.

Norm Van Vactor is a longtime Bristol Bay fisherman and current CEO of the Bristol Bay Economic Development Corp. Ralph Andersen is the former co-chair of the Alaska Federation of Natives and president and chief executive officer of the Bristol Bay Native Association. Jason Metrokin is president and CEO of Bristol Bay Native Corp.

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