Pebble Mine: Permit Denial Is Not Enough

As Bristol Bay Tribes unite to demand EPA action now, Canadian owner of destructive mining scheme remains undeterred by federal permit denial, overwhelming opposition, and catastrophic risk to world’s greatest wild salmon fishery.

Nushagak River, Bristol Bay Watershed

Credit: Robert Glenn Ketchum

As Bristol Bay Tribes unite to demand EPA action now, Canadian owner of destructive mining scheme remains undeterred by federal permit denial, overwhelming opposition, and catastrophic risk to world’s greatest wild salmon fishery.


If the destructive Pebble Mine is dead, someone needs to tell its tone-deaf Canadian owner Northern Dynasty Minerals. The Tribal communities of Bristol Bay—the people living under the project’s shadow—believe that “someone” is the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA ”), and, again last week, they asked the agency to take action under section 404(c) of the federal Clean Water Act.

In 2014, EPA did just that and, based on a three-year, twice peer-reviewed scientific risk assessment, concluded that the project poses a “catastrophic” risk to the region and its fisheries. Northern Dynasty and its wholly-owned subsidiary the Pebble Partnership ("Pebble") did everything possible to stop the agency’s review, and in 2017, when the Trump Administration took over, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt paused the review to allow Pebble more time to apply to the Army Corps of Engineers (“Army Corps”) for a federal permit.

But now that the Army Corps has completed its own three-year review of Pebble’s permit application—and denied it—the company still isn’t satisfied. Its opposition to EPA action hasn’t changed, and it will never change, because Northern Dynasty’s only asset is this single destructive project.

This week, without explaining why a three-year EPA review and a three-year Army Corps review were insufficient for the company to make its case, Pebble’s spokesperson Mike Heatwole observed that “a project like Pebble should be fully vetted. . .,” implying that the company may have more to say about its widely condemned mining scheme. Notably, he failed to mention that Pebble was itself responsible for accelerating the pace of the Army Corps’ permit review.

Presumably what Heatwole actually meant by “fully vetted” is a different outcome—that is, approval of the Pebble project regardless of its risks, regardless of its overwhelming opposition in Bristol Bay, and regardless of the conclusions by EPA and the Army Corps that the mine is too risky, is not in the public interest, and should not proceed. 

Under the circumstances, the need for EPA action can’t reasonably be disputed. In the wake of the Army Corps of Engineers’ permit denial, Pebble has shown no inclination to shut down or in any way go quietly into the night:

  • It has appealed the Army Corps’ denial of a federal permit. 
  • Through press releases and its latest corporate presentation, it has sought to “re-invent” itself as a green company, portraying its environmentally indefensible project as central to a green energy future
  • Its leadership has continued to beat the bushes for funding, assuring potential investors that “we are by no means at the end of the road or dead.”

And this week, in a Tuesday press release, Northern Dynasty announced that Pebble is “preparing crews and equipment to undertake a 2021 field program at the Pebble Project site in southwest Alaska this summer . . . .” According to Northern Dynasty’s CEO Ron Thiessen:

While our appeal of the November 2020 federal Record of Decision for Alaska's Pebble Project progresses, there is important work to be done to maintain and enhance our key asset, the Pebble deposit and surrounding mineral claims. We . . . fully intend to maintain that performance this year and into the future.

The work we are funding this summer is really an extension of our fundamental belief in the Pebble Project. . . . The Company is also investing in engineering, metallurgical and other technical studies - including evaluating emerging technologies and new development scenarios - to inform both internal and external understandings of how the project can be developed safely and profitably in future. (Emphasis added.)

Nothing in this week’s announcement suggests that Northern Dynasty is deterred by the rejection of its project by the Trump Administration’s Army Corps or by the unambiguous statement of President Biden that Bristol Bay “is no place for a mine.” In the company’s view, it is business as usual for Pebble, and its intended message to the world—and perhaps most importantly to investors—is that it will do all within its power to develop the ore body buried in the upper watershed of Bristol Bay.

But the people of Bristol Bay (and the global community that supports them) will never relent in their opposition. The temporary reprieve provided by the Army Corps’ permit denial is not what the Tribes have fought for over a decade to secure. It is unquestionably an important and necessary step, but it is not the permanent protection that they have demanded and deserve.

Someone needs to tell Pebble that its reckless project is dead, and that someone is EPA. Urge EPA to take action now under section 404(c).

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