In late September, the lack of transparency at the heart of plans to develop one of the world’s largest and potentially most devastating open-pit mines was laid bare. For years, executives at Pebble Limited Partnership (Pebble) have insisted to regulators and the public that they are adhering to legal guardrails and a transparent review of their mining proposal. But behind closed doors, they have affirmed that relationships, access, and political promises have pre-determined the outcome of federal and state permits. They also asserted their intentions for the mine to last at least 180 years, not the 20-year plan submitted for federal review. Pebble Mine’s developers assure one path to investors and are seeking a federal permit for quite another.
Federal regulators have a responsibility to the people of Alaska and Bristol Bay. They cannot allow a smokescreen to cover the truth. The Army Corps of Engineers should halt the permit process immediately and review whether Pebble has filed a complete and accurate application. Congress may also want to determine if testimony by Pebble executives previously given under oath was truthful.
In August, the Corps concluded that the current ‘small’ mine — which we know from Pebble’s own admissions constitutes only a fraction of the true intended buildout — would degrade Bristol Bay’s environment too significantly. As the next step of a process that has now been revealed as highly suspect, Pebble will soon submit to the Corps its newest plan to mitigate the mine’s impacts.
We already know that their plan won’t protect Bristol Bay — and the Army Corps must hold them to the highest standard, not rubber-stamp the foreign mining company’s misguided plans.
Pebble Mine would straddle the headwaters of the Koktuli River watershed in Bristol Bay, and the Corps has made clear that any mitigation of the mine must be located in the same watershed. This makes sense, as the mine, while certain to degrade rivers, streams and wetlands throughout the region, will also specifically and significantly impact a genetically important population of sockeye salmon in the Koktuli River. Bristol Bay’s unmatched salmon runs owe part of their everlasting strength to the genetic diversity of their fish; just like those living in the Koktuli River drainage.
As 95% of the Koktuli River watershed is state-owned land, Pebble will likely aim to mitigate its mine’s impact by working with the state to ‘preserve’ land as a new park or refuge. Here is the problem: To compensate for their degradation of wetlands by preserving other existing wetlands, the company must prove that the existing wetlands are under threat of development. The Corps only provides credit for preserving lands that would otherwise, without preservation action, be directly lost.
But the Corps already concluded that wetlands in the Koktuli River watershed are not under demonstrable threat from any other development, except from Pebble Mine itself. Pebble actually admitted in earlier documents that using preservation for mitigation in Bristol Bay is “unjustifiable due to the lack of foreseeable development threats to the existing wetlands and aquatic resources.” Moreover, only the state Legislature — on behalf of the people of Alaska — can permanently protect Alaska-owned lands from mining, something clearly outside of Pebble’s ability to dictate or promise.
Pebble’s efforts to backpedal and propose preservation is just another indicator of how incomplete their plan and application is. Bristol Bay residents have been clear; they do not want to mitigate the devastating impacts of Pebble. Those who depend on Bristol Bay’s vast natural resources want the freedom to continue their way of life undisturbed by Pebble.
This mine threatens a globally important fishery, local and national economies, Indigenous cultures that have thrived for thousands of years, and one of the world’s last salmon strongholds. These recent revelations clearly demonstrate a lack of transparency of the process and a failure to uphold the federal government’s trust responsibility to Bristol Bay’s sovereign Native nations.
Given the duplicitous tactics, a flawed review process, and an unworkable and convoluted mitigation plan, the Army Corps cannot approve a permit for Pebble Mine. Given all that we know — and all that we don’t — if the Corps moves this broken process forward, it must recognize that the public’s interest in reviewing and commenting on Pebble’s mitigation plan is absolute. Alaskans deserve a clear-eyed view of all that is at stake. Unfortunately, the Corps has not committed to a transparent process. If it did, it would promptly hear from the overwhelming majority of Alaskans: Pebble is the wrong mine in the wrong place. Since the Corps have yet to acknowledge this, the EPA must exercise its authority to protect our environment and veto this project.
Ralph Andersen is President and CEO of Bristol Bay Native Association.
Steven Cohn is Alaska State Director of The Nature Conservancy.
Alannah Hurley is Executive Director of United Tribes of Bristol Bay.
Norm Van Vactor is President and CEO of Bristol Bay Economic Development Corporation.
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