The Chairman of Bristol Bay Native Corporation, or BBNC, recently penned an op-ed about Pebble. The general tenor was that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, or USACE, the lead federal agency in charge of reviewing our plan, was ignoring scathing comments from other cooperating agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency, aka EPA, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, or FWS, as it crafts the final Environmental Impact Statement, or EIS, for Pebble. The implication was that the Corps of Engineers is rushing a decision about Pebble over the strong objections of those agencies. In order to make his point, he selected the most negative statements from lengthy comment letters from the agencies.
These are complex, nuanced letters. It is disingenuous to suggest an honest debate about Pebble by relying on only a few sentences that do not reflect the tenor of the letters in their entirety. Just to prove that point, let me highlight select, positive quotes from the same letters quoted by BBNC’s chairman:
• Department of the Interior: “… (DOI) provided significant comment on the DEIS from the FWS and NPS, addressing these and other potentially impacted resources. In general, the PFEIS addresses DOI’s previous comments and concerns. As cooperating agencies, the FWS and NPS have reviewed select chapters of the PFEIS and provide the enclosed comments to further assist the USACE …The FWS and NPS appreciate the opportunity to participate as cooperating agencies for this project.” (April 2, 2020)
• EPA: “Since July of 2019 our agencies have been working together on Corps review of this proposed project. Most recently since mid-March, the Corps, EPA, and USFWS have met weekly to discuss issues related to the evaluation of the proposed Pebble Mine pursuant to the CWA Section 404(b)(1) Guidelines (Guidelines).1 The EPA has found these weekly sessions to be invaluable. We appreciate the Corps’ convening of these discussions … As the very productive interagency discussions conclude, we want to express our appreciation for the Corps’ willingness to engage with both the EPA and Fish and Wildlife Service collectively.” (May 28, 2020)
• State of Alaska: “Thank you for the opportunity to review the PFEIS and engage throughout the federal environmental review process for the Pebble Project as a cooperating agency.” (March 23, 2020)
The point is that the cooperating agencies’ views on Pebble, and how the process is being managed by the Corps of Engineers, are neither entirely negative nor entirely positive. The reality is that these agencies have raised a number of constructive criticisms of the draft EIS published by the Corps in early 2019. The Corps of Engineers has engaged those agencies through multiple rounds of technical and other meetings in a process more transparent than any that has preceded it in Alaska. Further, those agencies are pleased that many of their concerns have been resolved but continue to have some areas where they disagree with the Corps. The statute designates the Corps of Engineers as the umpire for the permitting process — when agencies disagree, it makes the final decision.
What these letters really show is that the process is working the way the law intended. More proof of this is found in the EPA’s recent decision not to file a so-called 3B letter — a step that would have preserved EPA’s ability to elevate decisions on issues of strong disagreement with USACE. Its letter explaining why it did not file a 3B letter specifically referred to USACE’s willingness to consider EPA’s views. The letter focused especially on USACE’s decision, pushed on it strongly by EPA and FWS, to designate the northern road as the transportation corridor rather than the road and ferry route we proposed. These agencies views are being heard and being incorporated.
Several “facts” quoted by the BBNC chairman from the EPA letter are misleading without proper context. The reference to the project damaging 105 miles of streams fails to mention that only eight miles of anadromous streams will be affected and that those eight have very few salmon. Similarly, the reference to impacting 2,292 acres of wetlands fails to observe that this is only six one-thousandths of a percent of the wetlands in the Bristol Bay watershed.
Pebble looks forward to the publication this summer of the final EIS and the Record of Decision for the project according to the Corps of Engineers schedule. The project will then initiate state permitting. Just because some do not like the conclusions the agencies are reaching that Pebble’s development can be done without harm to the Bristol Bay fishery does not mean the work is not sound or proper.
Tom Collier has been CEO of the Pebble Partnership since February 2014.
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