Pebble Mine: The Defeat Goes On

With no other assets, Pebble Mine owner Northern Dynasty Minerals grasps at last straws, appealing Army Corps permit denial and releasing new corporate presentation seeking to re-invent failed Bristol Bay mining scheme as “Helping to Secure America’s Green Future.”

Bristol Bay Watershed

Robert Glenn Ketchum

If you’ve been tracking press releases from Northern Dynasty Minerals—owner of the destructive Pebble Mine proposed for construction at the headwaters of Bristol Bay, Alaska—you learned last Thursday that its promised appeal of the Army Corps of Engineers’ denial of a federal permit has been filed. 

If you track the company’s website, you may have noticed last Friday that Northern Dynasty has a new corporate presentation for its Pebble Mine project, now entitled “Helping to Secure America’s Green Future.”

You’re not alone if you’re wondering how a project as destructive as the Pebble Mine could help secure our green future; in fact, the words “Pebble Mine” and “America’s green future” are an oxymoron. The Army Corps—an agency not known for its environmental sensitivity—denied a permit for Pebble based on a finding that the project would cause “significant degradation” to the extraordinary aquatic resources in the region and, more broadly, is not “in the public interest.” 

These are the findings that the company hopes through its appeal to persuade the Army Corps to reverse—a goal facing significant odds not just within the Army Corps itself but, more broadly, in the realms of public opinion, science, and even the mining industry itself.

For years, the tribes, fishermen, and communities of Bristol Bay have overwhelmingly opposed the project, joined by a broad coalition of partners from across the political spectrum both inside Alaska and throughout the lower 48 states. Among its recent vocal opponents are Alaska Senators Murkowski and Sullivan, both Republicans and longtime friends of the mining industry in their state. But last Fall, Senator Murkowski explicitly endorsed the well-worn rallying cry that Pebble is “the wrong mine in the wrong place.” Senator Sullivan said simply “No Pebble Mine.” 

In a January letter to constituents, Senator Murkowski had this to say about Pebble’s permit denial:

The permitting process was rigorous and determined that Pebble could not meet the high bar required for any major project in the region. I believe this was the right decision. While validating our trust and faith in the well-established permitting process used to advance resource development projects throughout Alaska, this decision should also mark the end of the road for Pebble.

President Biden, too, has weighed in, vowing last summer that, if elected, he would stop the project because Bristol Bay “is no place for a mine.” He was inaugurated last week as our 46th President.

Faced with such formidable opposition—scientifically and politically—Pebble is now hoping to re-invent itself as a part of “America’s green future.” This effort assumes absurdly that our green future has room for the most widely condemned copper and gold mining project anywhere today—a project that, by the Army Corps’ estimate, would require destruction of 2,825 acres of pristine wetlands at the headwaters of the world’s most productive wild salmon fishery and unmitigable harm to 132.5 acres of open waters and 129.5 miles of streams that feed it, not to mention unavoidable risk to a sustainable economic engine that generates $1.5 billion a year in revenue and tens of thousands of jobs.

As undercover videotapes revealed in late September, this litany of harm is in fact only the beginning of what the company has actually planned. In secret conversations with hoped-for investors, Northern Dynasty CEO Ron Thiessen and then-Pebble CEO Tom Collier insisted that their actual mine plan was not the 20 year, 1.4 billion ton mine plan that they had presented to the Army Corps for permitting but a project ten times that size in duration and scale—a 200 year, ten billion ton mine plan whose environmental impacts would inevitably dwarf the impacts described in their current application. 

While Collier resigned two days after the tapes were released, Thiessen remains today at the helm of Northern Dynasty, continuing to defend its preposterous mining scheme. It is an understatement to observe that he has a steep hill to climb in rehabilitating a corporate image severely undermined by tapes of the very conversations in which he himself was an active and enthusiastic participant.

The fact remains that, in dealing with Pebble and the assurances of its executives, it has always been sensible to be skeptical. If Northern Dynasty’s representation of itself as part of “America’s green future” is to be believed, then our future is a dark one indeedand, I suspect, not a shade of green that anyone but the executives and shareholders of Northern Dynasty would recognize. In fact, humanity is likely doomed. The Pebble Mine is a disaster waiting to happen (both for the indigenous peoples of Bristol Bay and the waters that give them life), the Pebble Partnership has disintegrated, and Northern Dynasty is on life support as it struggles to reverse the denial of a federal permit by the Trump Administration. America’s chances of fighting climate change are better without their help.

The good news is that there are other places to find and recover copper and other ways to fuel our green energy future. Each of the major mining partners that abandoned the Pebble project did so because of their considered judgment that there are better options elsewhere to produce essential minerals—preferable to and more profitable than the Bristol Bay watershed, at the headwaters of one of the world’s great natural ecosystems, relentlessly opposed by the people who live there.

And science dictates the need to protectnot to poisonglobally significant landscapes like the 40,000 square mile Bristol Bay watershed. See, for example, the special report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change on Climate Change and Land (August 2019), the special report on biodiversity loss (published by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (May 2019)), or the discussion of climate-smart mining at the World Bank that same month.

Finally, just yesterday President Biden signed an Executive Order on “Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad,” as well as a Presidential Memorandum on Scientific Integrityboth of which confirm that Northern Dynasty and its Pebble Mine project have no place in America’s green future. Those actions express the intention of his Administration to elevate and promote science-based measures to address our climate and biodiversity crises, including “conserving at least 30 percent of our lands and oceans by 2030” and “mak[ing] environmental justice a part of the mission of every agency . . . .” Both are consistent with the longstanding goals of the communities of Bristol Bay. There is nothing in either action that could fairly be described as good news for Northern Dynasty.

If Americans hope to prevent the worst effects of climate change in years to come, and if we hope to arrest the reckless evisceration of our irreplaceable biodiversity, then the self-serving public relations of a failed Canadian mining company are irrelevant. A destructive scheme like the Pebble Mine simply has no place in the permanent protection of Bristol Bay—protection that the people who live there have long demanded and unquestionably deserve.

About the Authors

Joel Reynolds

Western Director, Senior Attorney, Marine Mammals, Oceans Division, Nature Program

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