Pebble Mine Environmental Review Falls Flat

Pebble CEO’s enthusiastic spin fails to mask widespread criticism of data gaps, unsupported conclusions, and failure to meet industry standard practice.

When Tom Collier talks, it’s sensible to be skeptical. 

He is CEO of the Pebble Partnership, now consisting only of Northern Dynasty Minerals, the small, under-funded Canadian company behind the widely condemned Pebble Mine—a massive open pit copper and gold mine proposed for construction at the headwaters of the most productive wild salmon ecosystem on Earth, Alaska’s Bristol Bay. Earlier this month, Collier revealed once again his propensity to say pretty much anything to secure support for his reckless project.

Recall his remarkable comments in 2017 to CNN, when he enthusiastically endorsed the blatantly absurd proposition that the company is “going to be able to put a clean mine up there that’s going to have no effect.”  He said this about a project that, according to the company’s own mine plan, will destroy thousands of acres of wetlands, require construction of hundreds of miles of roads, pipelines, stream crossings, ports, and associated infrastructure, and introduce a massive industrial project into a perfectly functioning, pristine natural ecosystem.   

Last December, in a letter to Bristol Bay leaders, he wrote that the company’s “sophisticated models . . . show we can have a potentially positive impact on fish habitat . . .,” echoing Northern Dynasty CEO Ron Thiessen’s assurance to shareholders in June 2018 that the Pebble Mine “will enhance the fisheries.” 

And now this:

In an interview with KTUU News in Anchorage earlier this month, Collier had this to say about the draft environmental review prepared by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and its consultant to support the company’s permit application: 

I don’t know that in my career of almost 40 years doing permitting if I’ve ever seen a more positive and unequivocal draft Environmental Impact Statement. This one concludes, without question, that this project will not do any damage to the Bristol Bay fishery. Period.

Reassuring words?  He wants you to believe that his beleaguered project – opposed by Alaskans for over a decade, abandoned by the world’s major mining companies, and all but dead until rescued by the notoriously anti-science, pro-polluter Trump administration—can be vindicated on its environmental merit by issuance of a permit from the Army Corps.

Is Collier a credible source for this assessment? Should the people and communities of Bristol Bay believe him—the people who, if he’s wrong and after he’s gone, will have to live with the consequences? 

Is it possible that he might be influenced by his personal financial stake in the project, including, under an incentive contract, a $12.5 million dollar bonus if he gets a quick project approval?

Under these circumstances, it’s sensible to be skeptical, as the public comment record on the draft environmental review (“DEIS”) inarguably confirms. Tens of thousands of comments deeply critical of the DEIS—from government agencies, elected officials, Bristol Bay residents, tribes and tribal associations, commercial and recreational fishing stakeholders and associations, businesses and their associations, recreational outfitters, conservation organizations (including NRDC), and on and on—all of these interests have formally disputed in the strongest terms Pebble’s self-serving endorsement of the Army Corps process and the quality of its DEIS.

Here is just a very small slice of the overwhelming consensus of criticism that the record (accessible on the Army Corps website) reflects:

According to comments submitted by the U.S. Department of the Interior (“DOI”):

“After thorough review, we believe the DEIS has major outstanding issues related to an overreliance on qualitative, subjective, and unsupported conclusions. . . .  Based on these identified deficiencies, the DEIS is so inadequate that it precludes meaningful analysis. . . .  In summary, the DEIS does not fully discuss the potential impacts of the proposed mining activity on DOI-managed resources and lacks a number of important analyses that are necessary to adequately assess the project. Therefore, we recommend that the USACE prepare a revised or supplemental DEIS to resolve the significant gaps in the current document.”

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”):

“The EPA has concerns regarding the extent and magnitude of the substantial proposed impacts to streams, wetlands, and other aquatic resources that may result, particularly in light of the important role these resources play in supporting the region’s valuable fishery resources. . . . Region 10 finds that this project . . .  may have substantial and unacceptable adverse impacts on fisheries resources in the project area watersheds, which are aquatic resources of national importance.”

EPA concluded the DEIS likely "underpredicts" the impacts Pebble could have on water quality, salmon and air quality. Further, the DEIS does not "support a reasonable judgment" that the project will comply with the Clean Water Act.

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Agency in a July 25, 2019 letter to the Army Corps:

“We believe the project as proposed will have significant adverse impacts on important, fish, wildlife, and aquatic habitats. We are advising the USACE  . . . that the proposed work will result in substantial and unacceptable impacts to aquatic resources of national importance. Consequently, we recommend that a permit not be issued for the project as currently proposed. We recommend more robust analysis be conducted to thoroughly identify, analyze, and reduce risks to those resources . . . .”

According to the largest development corporation in the Bristol Bay region—the Bristol Bay Native Corporation—supported by 286 pages of detailed comments:

A major flaw of the Draft EIS is that much of the information that is necessary to complete a satisfactory review of the Project either does not exist or has not been provided by the Pebble Limited Partnership (PLP). The Corps should suspend its review of the proposed Pebble Mine Project until such time as that information exists and has been provided. . . .  [R]egardless of what action the Corps takes with respect to the Draft EIS, enough is known about the potential impacts of the proposed Pebble Mine Project to conclude that it cannot be constructed, under any variant, in a way that would not cause significant adverse effects to Bristol Bay, its waters and its fisheries, and therefore the Corps should not issue a permit to PLP.

According to Trustees for Alaska, based on 415 pages of comments submitted on behalf of The Alaska Center, Alaska Community Action on Toxics, Alaska Wilderness League, Audubon Alaska, Cook Inletkeeper, Defenders of Wildlife, Earthworks, Fairbanks Climate Action Coalition, Friends of Alaska Wildlife Refuges, Friends of McNeil River, McNeil River Alliance, National Parks Conservation Association, Natural Resources Defense Council, Sierra Club, and Wild Salmon Center:

The number of problems with the DEIS is staggering. The scope of analysis is completely inadequate to account for impacts to ecosystems. The baseline documents are inadequate. There are far too many data gaps to allow for a thorough review at this time. Some of the underlying assumptions are flat out wrong. There is no meaningful cumulative impacts analysis reviewing how each of the independent stressors to the environment interacts with one another. The Corps cannot comply with NEPA or the CWA based on these documents.

According to the Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association:

[T]he Army Corps appears ready to approve this project based on little more than superficial rhetoric and colorful graphics, not science. The DEIS is woefully inadequate and is an affront to sound biological and economic analysis. If the Army Corps issues this permit based on a finalized version of this DEIS, it will be doing so based on information and analysis that is either erroneous, misleading, or altogether missing. Instead of taking a hard look at environmental and economic impacts, the DEIS takes a hard look away from the profound and predictable impacts of the proposed project.

According to United Tribes of Bristol Bay and the Nondalton Tribal Council:

[T]he DEIS fails to consider a reasonable range of alternatives; the DEIS is based on outdated, inadequate, and incomplete data; the DEIS fails to adequately consider mine failures and spills; the DEIS fails to adequately consider cumulative effects and future connected actions; the DEIS fails to consider adequate mitigation measures; and the purpose and need section of the DEIS is inappropriate. Given these and other fatal flaws and deficiencies identified in the attached memoranda . . ., the USACE must suspend the current NEPA process and prepare a revised DEIS to address these flaws and data gaps.

According to the Bristol Bay Borough Chamber of Commerce:

[W]e express concern that the draft EIS fails to require the Pebble Partnership to submit an economic feasibility study. It also fails to require the Pebble Partnership to submit a plan for environmental cleanup in the event of a failure or contamination that jeopardizes Bristol Bay’s highly sensitive ecosystem. The draft EIS fails to adequately address the long term impacts to Bristol Bay’s communities and existing sustainable economy. Considering these reasons and the fact that the majority of our members have responded that they are “Against the development of Pebble Mine” this Chamber of Commerce as an organization must oppose any development that threatens the collective livelihood of Bristol Bay, including the Pebble Mine.

According to former EPA Administrators from the Nixon, Reagan, and both Bush Administrations, as well as to former Interior Secretary to President Clinton:

We oppose the Trump Administration’s efforts to sweep nearly a decade of science and Clean Water Act review under the rug. The record is clear: The Pebble Mine is fundamentally flawed—it’s the wrong mine in the wrong place. And the choice is simple. Protect the greatest salmon fishery on the planet. Protect Alaskans and the Bristol Bay watershed.  For these reasons, we oppose issuance of a permit by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for development of the Pebble Mine.   

According to the National Parks Conservation Association:

Ultimately, the Pebble Project poses the question of whether the future of the Bristol Bay watershed is a healthy ecosystem that supports massive tourism and fishing industries and resident subsistence users, or an industrial mining watershed with all the impacts associated with air and water pollution, increased noise, traffic and people. The DEIS makes it impossible to address this question by refusing to analyze the impacts of a mining district on the watershed and on Lake Clark and Katmai National Parks and Preserves.

According to longtime environmental director and permitting chief for Rio Tinto Richard Borden:

Based on a careful review of the Pebble Mine Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS), it is my professional opinion that the document and associated analysis is fatally flawed. The DEIS contains an unacceptable number of deficiencies, omissions and errors for such a large, complex project in an extremely sensitive environment. Due to the global significance of the salmon fishery, any EIS within the Bristol Bay watershed should be held to the highest standard, but the Pebble DEIS does not even meet industry standard practice. I would strongly urge the Army Corps of Engineers to restart the DEIS process with an analysis based on an economically-credible mine plan, supported by an independent and rigorous economic analysis demonstrating that it is the “least environmentally damaging practicable alternative.”

According to Trout Unlimited:

Because the permit application and DEIS are incomplete and fail to meet the most basic standards required by applicable law and regulation, the only alternative supportable by the record is for the Corps to take no action by denying PLP’s application. The Corps must deny the permit or suspend its review of the permit application and start anew with scoping and a new DEIS once additional plans, specifications, and background data are available to provide a comprehensive and thorough review of the proposed project and its potential impacts.

According to the Attorney General of Washington State:

Despite these mandates, the Draft EIS fails to satisfy NEPA and the CWA’s requirements in multiple respects. Specifically, the Draft EIS: • fails to consider Washington’s unique economic and educational connections to the Bristol Bay commercial and recreational fisheries; • fails to consider a reasonable range of alternatives, including a practicable alternative that would have less adverse environmental impacts; • drastically underestimates the size of the mine; and • fails to adequately analyze the direct, indirect, and cumulative impacts of the proposed mine, including potential impacts to the Bristol Bay watershed and the fisheries it supports and the potential impact of catastrophic tailings dam failure.

According to Tiffany & Co.:

The proposed Pebble Mine’s threat to Bristol Bay exemplifies the enormous human and environmental cost of irresponsible mining. The released Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) fails to meet rigorous scientific standards and also fails to take into consideration the robust Environmental Protection Agency’s 2014 watershed assessment.

Tiffany & Co. was one of the first jewelers to sign the Bristol Bay Protection Pledge in 2008 and declare that, should the proposed Pebble Mine be developed, we will not source gold from it. Since that time, Tiffany & Co. has raised awareness about the danger of mining in such a precious place, first within the jewelry industry and then among the broader public. . . . Tiffany & Co. is not alone in taking this stance. A broad and diverse coalition—from recreation providers and commercial fishing companies, to restaurateurs, conservationists and Alaska Natives—has raised a unified voice in opposition to the Pebble Mine. We, along with so many others—including mining companies who previously planned to develop the Pebble deposit—concluded long ago that this mine represents an environmental risk of the highest order.

This record of criticism of the very same draft environmental review so enthusiastically endorsed by Pebble’s Collier goes on and on.  As Senator Lisa Murkowski, the senior member of Alaska’s congressional delegation, summed it up:

“[T]he Corps’ DEIS has failed to meet my standard of a robust and rigorous process.

With Collier’s blanket assurance that the Army Corps’ environmental review has blessed his reckless scheme, Pebble is hoping to deflect public focus from any of these flaws. The definition of a mine,” Mark Twain is reported to have said, “is a hole in the ground owned by liars”—a sentiment worth remembering in the battle over the Pebble Mine.

The people of Bristol Bay—and all of us who support the fight to defend their region and their way of life—aren’t afraid of good science, and no one should be. But everyone should beware of backroom deals between the Pebble Partnership and the Trump Administration to transform one of the world’s most sustainably functioning ecosystems—supporting all the people, communities, and wildlife that depend on it—into a mining district for the benefit of the Pebble Partnership (aka Northern Dynasty), its shareholders, and its CEO. 

Take action now to stop the Pebble Mine.

Stop the Pebble Mine, Save Bristol Bay

About the Authors

Joel Reynolds

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

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