Formal request for more time includes supporting letter by former Head of Environment for Rio Tinto’s Copper, Copper & Diamonds, and Copper & Coal Groups, expressing “deep concern” over “extraordinarily short time lines” in environmental review by U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
Adding its voice in support of the chorus of requests by Alaskans for more time to submit comments on the draft Environmental Impact Statement (“DEIS”) for permitting of the proposed Pebble Mine, the Natural Resources Defense Council (“NRDC”) yesterday formally requested an extension by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (“Army Corps”) of the public comment period from 90 days to 270 days.
The request cites similar demands already submitted by tribal, community, and business leaders of Bristol Bay—including the Bristol Bay Native Corporation (BBNC), Bristol Bay Native Association (BBNA), and Bristol Bay Economic Development Corporation (BBEDC). NRDC’s request also references requests to the Army Corps by more than three dozen businesses—employing hundreds of Americans in Bristol Bay and representing thousands of sportsmen and sportswomen in Alaska—not only to extend the public comment period a minimum of 270 days, but also to “conduct an extensive external scientific peer review” of the DEIS.
Notably, in addition to legal and factual justification based on the extraordinary size, risks, and controversy posed by the Pebble Mine, NRDC submitted with its request a detailed comment letter prepared by Richard K. Borden, a mining expert with 23 years of experience in mine permitting with Rio Tinto, including seven years as Head of Environment for Rio Tinto’s Copper, Copper & Diamonds, and Copper & Coal Groups. Formerly a major shareholder in the Pebble Mine, Rio Tinto abandoned the project in 2014, donating all of its shares in the embattled project to two Alaskan non-profits.
Based on his environmental and permitting work at over fifty mines, projects, and operations around the world with one of the world’s largest mining companies, Borden expresses his “deep concern” about the “extraordinarily short time lines” in the Pebble NEPA process that resulted in the “completion of a draft EIS in only eleven months.”
These short time frames are unprecedented for such a large, complex mining project which will have unavoidable, material and long-term impacts to a sensitive globally significant ecosystem. I believe these short time lines will almost certainly compromise the technical rigor and reliability of the EIS outcomes.
In my professional opinion, given the site’s sensitive environmental setting and the complexity of the necessary management strategies to ensure its responsible development, the extremely short EIS time lines are insufficient to ensure the selection of technically rigorous and defensible solutions to the range of environmental issues and impacts described above.
According to Borden:
In order to successfully design, develop and operate the Pebble Mine, potential environmental impacts and risks that will need to be controlled will almost certainly include: mineral waste environmental geochemistry; groundwater and surface water quality; dewatering and discharge impacts to in-stream flow regime; direct disturbance to land and water resources within the mine and transportation corridor footprints; geotechnical stability of tailings, open pits and waste rock piles; minimization of other upset conditions such as spills of reagents, hydrocarbons and concentrate; air emissions and noise; construction-specific impacts; ferry and port operations; and a complex and costly mine closure that will likely require permanent care and maintenance. Each of these areas requires the collection of baseline data, but generally also laboratory analytical characterization, numeric modelling predictions, management strategy development and detailed options analysis.
Indeed, recent experience for successful mining-related EISs illustrate the longer time lines required to produce a rigorous and defensible outcome:
- The Rosemont Mine EIS in Arizona took nine years to complete with a ROD issued in June 2017;
- The Gold Rock Mine EIS in Nevada took five years to complete with a ROD issued in July 2018;
- The Donlin Mine EIS in Alaska took six years to complete with a ROD issued in August 2018; and
- The proposed Resolution Copper Mine in Arizona is currently completing their EIS with a time line of greater than four years.
- The Pebble Mine is more complex and located in a more sensitive environmental setting than any of these other mining projects and yet its EIS is proposed for completion in a fraction of the time.
NRDC’s comment letter also notes that the Army Corps was most recently the lead agency in the Donlin Gold Mine Project—also in Alaska—and allowed a 180-day public comment period on the DEIS in 2016:
Given that the Army Corps determined that a longer comment period was appropriate for Donlin—a project without the significant public opposition at Pebble—there is no legitimate reason for the very same agency to justify a much shorter timeline for a project that poses greater risks—in disregard of well supported requests for more time from the overwhelming weight of stakeholders in the region.
The risks associated with the massive and embattled Pebble Mine--proposed for siting in the headwaters of the incomparable Bristol Bay wild salmon fishery–are too great to allow the NEPA process to be rushed if the agency’s purpose is an objective, transparent review, as the Army Corps has claimed. Under the circumstances, former Rio Tinto manager Borden observes that it is “particularly important for the public comment period to be extended to insure the draft document can receive a rigorous review.”