Pebble Mine's 2013 Year End Review: "One Foot In the Grave?"

Bad to very much worse.  That sums up the lack of progress in 2013 for the massive Pebble Mine, proposed by a diminishing consortium of foreign mining companies for the headwaters of the Bristol Bay wild salmon fishery in southwest Alaska.

Coming off a disappointing 2012, the Pebble Limited Partnership and its uniquely reckless project hit the rocks repeatedly in 2013.  As one investment commentator summed it up for Motley Fool, the 100 percent owner of the Pebble project Northern Dynasty Minerals ends the year with “one foot in the grave” -- maybe "dead and about to be buried.”

As in 2012, no permit application was filed. In July, Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) called on the Pebble Partnership to release their plans and expressed her growing impatience, citing public “anxiety, frustration, and confusion” resulting from the Pebble Partnership’s lack of discernible progress.

In no particular order, these ten 2013 highlights tell the story:

  • In September, mining giant Anglo American -- the 50% owner of the Pebble project -- withdrew, walking away from over $540 million invested and a $1.5 billion commitment.  Anglo followed Mitsubishi Corporation, which ended its participation in 2011. 
  • The stock value of the remaining owner of the project -- small Canadian mining company Northern  Dynasty Minerals (NDM) -- dropped sharply again, and it ended the year at $1.31 per share – an over 90% drop from its $21.02 a share high in January 2011 and down from $3.90 just one year ago.  It committed to recruit another major mining company partner -- and specifically mentioned its 19% shareholder Rio Tinto as a candidate – but NDM ended the year still looking.  Notably, NDM’s search for a buyer of its own interest in Pebble – announced in 2011 – got no takers.
  • In December, after expressing concern for several years about the environmental risks of an open pit mine at Pebble, Rio Tinto publicly announced that it, too, is considering divesting from NDM
  • Rio Tinto’s announcement comes in the wake of letters from the California State Controller and New York City Comptroller urging it to divest.  Those letters noted the huge hurdles Pebble faces, including public opposition, reputational risk, environmental risk, and regulatory risk. (The state pension funds together are worth more than $500 billion and are long-term substantial shareholders in Rio Tinto.)
  • The US EPA completed a revised  draft and a second scientific peer review of its comprehensive assessment of the potential impacts of large-scale mining in the Bristol Bay watershed, calling those impacts potentially “catastrophic.”  The final document is expected early in 2014, followed by a decision under federal Clean Water Act section 404(c) on whether to “prohibit or restrict” large-scale mining (including the Pebble Mine) in the region.
  • In the public comment period on the second draft, approximately 900,000  comments were received, of which 73% percent supported EPA’s review, including 84% from individuals in Alaska and a staggering 98% from individuals within Bristol Bay -- despite the last minute efforts of a Koch Brothers-funded organization to paper the process with negative comments.
  • Opposition to the Pebble Mine continued to grow, both in-state and elsewhere.  Two new organizations in Alaska were formed, committed to defeating the Pebble Mine – United Tribes of Bristol Bay and Bristol Bay United.  In April, NRDC delivered over 200,000 more petitions in opposition to the Pebble Mine to the leadership of Anglo American and Rio Tinto at their annual shareholder meetings in London, bringing the four-year total to nearly 1.5 million petitions.
  • In September, the Alaska Department of Natural Resources issued final amendments to the Bristol Bay Area Plan, an action driven by litigation to correct legal deficiencies in the plan -- by significantly increasing the classification (and co-classification) of land in the Bristol Bay watershed as habitat, water resources, or public recreation, including tens of thousands of acres in and around the Pebble units that had previously been solely classified as mineral land. 
  • In October, a state-wide salmon-protection initiative called “Bristol Bay Forever” was successfully filed, with the required number of approved signatures in support.  In December, Alaska Lieutenant Governor Mead Treadwell certified the initiative for the ballot. 
  • According to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, Division of Commercial Fisheries, the value of the 2013 Bristol Bay salmon harvest for all species was 26% above the 20-year average, confirming the continuing importance of protecting this sustainable economic engine from contamination, including specifically from the Pebble Mine and any othger large-scale mining in the region.  According to a report released in May by the University of Alaska Anchorage's Institute for Social and Economic Research, the Bristol Bay commercial salmon fishery is the most lucrative wild salmon fishery in the world -- worth an estimated $1.5 billion.

These are compelling indications of the challenges faced by the Pebble Limited Partnership today.  Without question, the Pebble Mine can and should be stopped once and for all in 2014.

But it will be stopped only if the determined, broad-based opposition continues uninterrupted, and NRDC and its members are committed to continuing our efforts in support of the people of Bristol Bay and the state of Alaska to do just that.

We look now to EPA to do its job – first, by finalizing the Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment and, second, under its Clean Water Act authority, by “prohibiting or restricting” large scale mining in the Bristol Bay watershed.

Now more than ever, take action.