The Pebble Limited Partnership wants Alaskans to believe that its mine can co-exist with Bristol Bay’s world class fisheries. But the truth is, the facts don’t support this conclusion. The recently released final Environmental Impact Statement, and the Army Corps' environmental review process of developing that document over the past two years, clearly demonstrate that Pebble will jeopardize Bristol Bay.
Up front, I am not arguing against all mines or all development. Our nation requires both. What I am arguing is that this particular mine, its FEIS, and the process by which the final EIS was developed, are fatally flawed and Pebble’s permit application must be denied. Even the Army Corps of Engineers, the federal regulators tasked with reviewing Pebble’s application, noted in an Aug. 20 letter that the project will cause significant degradation to the aquatic environment.
The proposed mine and infrastructure project proposal is merely a back-of-the-napkin, conceptual design. This is clear from comment letters in the Administrative Record, meetings with federal agencies senior leaders and staff, press reports, and Pebble’s own writings (including the final EIS). The lack of a clear plan means that is no factual, engineering, or scientific basis for understanding whether the project is practicable, implementable, affordable, and in compliance with engineering standards and environmental laws. Some mining experts have opined that the features proposed for the mine site proper cannot physically fit and operate at the proposed site as the Pebble Partnership suggests due to slope, substrate, and mining regulations regarding spacing and siting. The only way to fit all the proposed features on the mine site would be to enlarge the project to the 78-year mine plan and site features accordingly.
Based upon hundreds of comments, my own review, and discussions with expert engineers and scientists, Pebble is proposing an untested approach (in terms of technology and size) for managing tremendous volumes of toxic and contaminated wastewater, moved under pressure. Worse, Pebble has miscalculated and incorrectly modeled the water budget, the effect of which is that the tailings dam is under-designed and at risk of catastrophic failure --- it is a question of when, not if, it will fail. The odds that tailings and water content will flow and sort as perfectly and effectively as Pebble asserts are very, very low.
The project’s flaws aren’t limited to the design. The environmental baseline information from which the project can be judged are similarly deficient. Despite the fact that this project has been in the works for decades, Pebble and the Corps cobbled together old, outdated, and poorly-collected information, and mixed it in an undisciplined fashion with newer substandard information. Fish sampling techniques are substandard in terms of methods, quality, and numbers of field seasons. The FEIS discloses that the waters and wetlands information is incomplete, portions of the project were missed, and the entire effort to locate, identify and evaluate waters and wetlands was rushed under the Army Corps of Engineers' arbitrary short schedule.
Having engaged in the National Environmental Protection Act process for two years as a contractor for a cooperating agency, I can testify that the Army Corps did not properly conduct government-to-government consultation, nor did its staff properly work with tribal and cooperating agency staff. The process was opaque, and the attitude of some of the Army Corps staff was dismissive and insulting.
A final EIS is expected to respond to each comment submitted on the draft EIS, but in this case, thousands of comments were simply ignored. Other than grammar or editorial changes, the final EIS appendix shows that the Corps of Engineers made very few changes as a result of comments provided by agencies, individuals, and organizations that have more experience and expertise than the Alaska District regulatory staff do. There was no external or internal peer review. There was no attempt to have affected tribes write portions of the final EIS to provide indigenous insights and balance.
A review of the guidelines for permit issuance makes clear: based upon the information in the final EIS and information required but absent from the final EIS, the Pebble Mine Project does not meet the standard for an American mine.
Last, Pebble is reported to be working on a new compensatory mitigation plan in hopes of obtaining a favorable permit decision. How can it possibly develop such a plan when the actual mine and infrastructure plans are conceptual, and when the environmental baseline is unknown? Pebble needs to step back, do the fieldwork, modeling, and analysis necessary to enable the Corps to make and support this important permit decision, and publish a new NEPA document for public comment.
As Pebble Chairman John Shively has written, our nation has a regulatory program for a reason. In this case, the reason is to deny this particular permit application, fulfilling the federal government’s trust responsibility to tribes, and protecting the physical, biological and chemical integrity of Bristol Bay.
Chip Smith is a consultant for the Nondalton Tribal Council and former Assistant for Environmental, Regulatory, and Tribal Affairs for the Assistant Secretary of the Army, Civil Works. He has over 40 years' experience in the federal government doing and teaching tribal consultation practices, environmental and historic preservation compliance, NEPA, and Rivers and Harbors and Clean Water Acts permitting.
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