Happy Thanksgiving

Like anyone that has so far avoided getting COVID-19, I am most thankful for that this year. I could easily stop there.

However, yesterday the Army Corps of Engineers announced the denial of a permit for the Pebble Mine that was to be constructed in the most important salmon fishery in the world. And, to my surprise the environment and the Clean Water Act won out.

Map of Bristol Bay. By own work – maps-for-free.com, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3709948

From the Nature Conservancy (Eric Bontrager):

The Army Corps of Engineers today formally denied a permit for the proposed Pebble Mine in Alaska.

In August, the Corps found the mine “cannot be permitted” as proposed under the Clean Water Act following a determination that discharges at the mine site would cause unavoidable, adverse impacts and significant degradation of aquatic resources in Bristol Bay.

Last week, the mine’s developers submitted a new plan for how it would abate the mine’s threat to this globally significant salmon fishery. The developer did not release the plan and the Corps declined to make it available for public comment.

The following is a statement by Lynn Scarlett, chief external affairs officer for The Nature Conservancy:

“Today’s decision affirms what the science and local communities have said all along: Pebble is the wrong mine in the wrong place. The decision is a win for this world-class salmon fishery and the Alaska Natives who have thrived in this region for millennia. This is a commendable and necessary determination that will help protect this watershed and the economies it supports. We appreciate the Army Corps for making the right decision to deny the permit for Pebble Mine, and we’re grateful for the many people who have spoken up with their perspectives and expertise for years so that we could reach this moment.

“Even with this encouraging development, without permanent protection, Bristol Bay’s future is far from certain. Any outcome for the region must align with the health and well-being of Indigenous communities, including a focus on economic opportunity. This can only happen with collaboration, transparency and through decisions informed by science. We will continue supporting Tribal and local governments, Alaska Native corporations, businesses, and other stakeholders in their efforts to chart a sustainable and equitable future for Bristol Bay.”

An aerial view of Wood-Tikchik State Park in Bristol Bay, Alaska. Photo credit: Ryan Petersen via The Natural Resources Defense Council

From The Washington Post (Juliet Eilperin and Brady Dennis):

In a statement, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Alaska Commander Col. Damon Delarosa said that a plan to deal with waste from the Pebble Mine “does not comply with Clean Water Act guidelines,” and that “the proposed project is contrary to the public interest.”

While the Trump administration has pressed ahead to weaken environmental protections and expand energy development before the president’s term ends in January, the decision to torpedo the long-disputed mine represents a major win for environmentalists, fishing enthusiasts and tribal rights.

“Today’s decision speaks volumes about how bad this project is, how uniquely unacceptable it is,” Joel Reynolds, a senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, which has fought the mine for years, said in an interview. “We’ve had to kill this project more than once, and we’re going to continue killing for as long as it takes to protect Bristol Bay.”

Trump officials had allowed the Pebble Limited Partnership, a subsidiary of a Canadian firm, to apply for a permit even though the Obama administration had concluded in 2014 that the firm could not seek federal approval because the project could have “significant” and potentially “catastrophic” impacts on the world’s largest sockeye salmon fishery. As recently as July, the Corps concluded that the mine would have “no measurable effect” on area fish populations.

State and federal agencies warned that the project would permanently damage the region, destroying more than 2,800 acres of wetlands, 130 miles of streams and more than 130 acres of open water within Alaska’s Koktuli River watershed. The proposed site lies at the river’s headwaters.

An unlikely coalition of opponents formed when President Trump’s eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., Fox News host Tucker Carlson and Vice President Pence’s former chief of staff, Nick Ayers — who all have enjoyed fishing or hunting around Bristol Bay — joined with traditional environmental groups and the region’s tribes in opposition to the project.

Opponents received a major boost in September when the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) released recordings of secretly taped Zoom calls in which the project’s top executives boasted of their influence inside the White House and to Alaska lawmakers to win a federal permit. Alaska’s two GOP senators, Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan, issued statements saying they opposed the plan and within days Pebble’s chief executive, Tom Collier, resigned.

Both senators praised the administration’s decision.

“Today, the Army Corps has made the correct decision, based on an extensive record and the law, that the project cannot and should not be permitted,” Sullivan said. He added that he supports mining in Alaska, but given the project’s potential impact on the state’s fisheries and subsistence hunting, “Pebble had to meet a high bar so that we do not trade one resource for another.”

[…]

Pebble issued a plan to the Corps this fall outlining how it would compensate for any damage inflicted by the project, which would span more than 13 miles and require the construction of a 270-megawatt power plant, natural-gas pipeline, 82-mile double-lane road, elaborate storage facilities and the dredging of a port at Iliamna Bay…

Bristol Bay Native Corporation President Jason Metrokin, also its chief executive, said his group and others will keep working “to ensure that wild salmon continue to thrive in Bristol Bay waters, bringing with them the immense cultural, subsistence and economic benefits that we all have enjoyed for so long.”

[…]

“The credit for this victory belongs not to any politician but to Alaskans and Bristol Bay’s Indigenous peoples, as well as to hunters, anglers and wildlife enthusiasts from all across the country who spoke out in opposition to this dangerous and ill-conceived project,” [Adam Kolton] said in a statement. “We can be thankful that their voices were heard, that science counted and that people prevailed over short-term profiteering.”

Pebble Mine site. Photo credit: Northern Dynasty Minerals, Ltd.

From The New York Times (Henry Fountain):

The fight over the mine’s fate has raged for more than a decade. The plan was scuttled years ago under the Obama administration, only to find new life under President Trump. But opposition, from Alaska Native American communities, environmentalists and the fishing industry never diminished, and recently even the president’s son, Donald Trump Jr., a sportsman who had fished in the region, came out against the project.

On Wednesday, it failed to obtain a critical permit required under the federal Clean Water Act that was considered a must for it to proceed. In a statement, the Army Corps’ Alaska District Commander, Col. Damon Delarosa, said the mine, proposed for a remote tundra region about 200 miles from Anchorage, would be “contrary to the public interest” because “it does not comply with Clean Water Act guidelines.”

Opponents said the large open-pit operation, which would dig up and process tens of millions of tons of rock a year, would irreversibly harm breeding grounds for salmon that are the basis for a sports-fishing industry and a large commercial fishery in Bristol Bay. Salmon are also a major subsistence food of Alaska Natives who live in small villages across the region…

Lindsay Layland, deputy director of United Tribes of Bristol Bay, which has fought the project for years, said that while the decision means the project may be dead, the threat remains that the gold and copper ore could still be mined in the future. “It doesn’t mean that those minerals aren’t going to be in the ground tomorrow,” she said. “We need to continue to push for long term and permanent protections down the road.”

[…]

The environmental impact statement was finalized in July by the Corps, which had authority to approve or deny a permit under the federal Clean Water Act. But a few weeks later the Corps said that the company’s plan to compensate for environmental damage from the mine was insufficient, and requested a new plan…

The new plan, which was not publicly released but was believed to designate land near the mine to be permanently protected, was submitted last week.

The mining industry and many state officials have supported the project for the revenue and other economic benefits it would bring. But some important Alaskan politicians, notably Senator Lisa Murkowski, a Republican, had been noncommittal, saying the mine should go forward only if it could be shown to be environmentally sound.

In a statement on Wednesday, Senator Murkowski said the Corps’ decision affirmed “that this is the wrong mine in the wrong place.”

“This is the right decision, reached the right way,” she added.

Under the Trump administration, the Environmental Protection Agency reversed an earlier ruling, allowing the environmental review by the Corps to proceed. Under the Clean Water Act, the Corps reviews any dredging and filling activities in waterways, including wetlands like those in the area of the proposed project.

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