Pebble Mine: One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

Following Army Corps of Engineers’ release of Pebble’s flawed final environmental impact statement, opposition digs in, Alaskan coalition urges EPA veto, House votes to cut off funding for permitting, Senators Manchin and Cantwell speak out, and Northern Dynasty’s share value drops 30 percent.

A school of salmon swimming together in a stream in Katmai National Park and Preserve, Alaska

Russ Taylor/NPS

No one was surprised when, on Friday July 24, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers issued its final environmental impact statement (“FEIS”) for the widely condemned Pebble Mine, proposed for the headwaters of the world-class Bristol Bay watershed in southwest Alaska.

As expected, the pervasive flaws in the agency’s analysis remain, and few could be reassured by its conclusion that “under normal operations” the project “would not be expected to have a measurable effect on fish numbers and result in long-term changes to the health of the commercial fisheries in Bristol Bay.” This carefully hedged assessment was promptly attacked by fisheries experts as “based on a glaring absence of support . . . in the EIS,” which “ignores the very fundamentals of salmon and freshwater ecology.”

The FEIS is the result of a permitting process rushed from start to finish by an agency that appears ready to rubber stamp one of the most destructive projects proposed anywhere today—the wrong mine in absolutely the wrong place—over the opposition of 80 percent of the people who live in the region and, according to a poll last month, 62 percent of Alaskans state-wide.

As expected, Pebble’s CEO Tom Collier celebrated the Army Corps’ action. He alleged a “misinformation campaign” that a mine at Pebble “would harm the fishery” and asserted, based on the FEIS, that the agency has “turned that lie on its head.” Collier, of course, is the person who stands to collect a $12.5 million bonus for accelerated project approval—a bonus he claimed last week was intended to incentivize him to address community concerns. In fact, the bonus provision in his contract lays out only a timetable of permitting milestones, apparently because accelerated permitting, not community support, is the real purpose of the bonus.

But there were some surprises:

First, rather than building support for the Pebble Mine, the Corps’ action seemed further to discredit the project. In fact, the predictable stamp of approval from this science-challenged infrastructure-building agency feels like politics—in stark contrast, for example, either to EPA’s scientific finding that Pebble could be “catastrophic” to the Bristol Bay fishery or to the U.S. Department of the Interior’s comment that deficiencies in Pebble’s draft EIS “preclude meaningful analysis.” Rather than being “data-driven” in its assessment of potentially significant impacts, the Army Corps chose to elevate permitting schedule over substance by producing a “time-driven” assessment—cutting regulatory corners, relying on outdated science, underestimating potential impacts, and “fail[ing] to meet industry standards.” The sloppiness of the FEIS is the inevitable result.

Second, even before the ink was dry on the Army Corps’ Federal Register notice, Pebble opponents rolled out a broad-based campaign urging EPA to veto the project in the wake of the Army Corps’ failure of regulatory oversight. Through earned and paid media—including print, digital, and TV ads—the coalition urged EPA to use its authority under section 404(c) of the federal Clean Water Act—something Congress, through appropriations language last Fall, has already urged EPA (and other federal agencies using their own authorities) to consider if the Army Corps fails in its review—which it has.

Third, last week the U.S, House of Representatives approved an amendment to the Interior Appropriations bill prohibiting the expenditure of funds by the Army Corps to complete a Record of Decision for the Pebble Mine permit. Sponsored by Reps. Huffman, DeFazio, Speier, Rouda, and Levin, the amendment passed by a voice vote and the bill in its entirety was approved the next day, sending it to conference committee with the Senate later this year. This action reflects a high level of congressional concern about the Pebble Mine and the Army Corps’ flawed review.

Fourth, on the Senate side, Senator Joe Manchin—ranking member on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee—issued last week a lengthy statement in opposition to the Pebble Mine, expressing his strongly held view that development of this “world-class pristine treasure” would be “gravely irresponsible”:

As a West Virginian, I understand the importance of mining and the role it plays in our economy. We have learned a great deal from past projects, and we know mining must be done hand in hand with responsible environmental practices. Alaska’s Bristol Bay region is unique in that it is home to the world’s most productive sockeye salmon fishery, which generates a proven $1.5 billion in annual revenues and supports 14,000 jobs. The Final Environmental Impact Statement for the Pebble mine did not come anywhere close to assuring me that this world-class pristine treasure would be protected for generations to come. To jeopardize it would be gravely irresponsible and I cannot support the Pebble mine moving forward. I urge the administration to do the right thing by rejecting a Clean Water Act permit for this project. (Emphasis added.)

Representing a mining state, Senator Manchin knows mining, is a friend of the industry, and understands the relationship between mining and the economy. Nevertheless, he has concluded that development of the Pebble Mine would be “gravely irresponsible”—bad for the Bristol Bay fishery, bad for the mining industry, and bad for the country.  

His Senate colleague from the other side of the country—Senator Maria Cantwell of Washington, ranking member on the Commerce Committee—weighed in with equal vehemence:

It is beyond unconscionable that the administration continues to threaten the largest salmon fishery in the world instead of focusing on the catastrophic failure that we are seeing because of the pandemic. This is like a one, two gut punch to the industry…So as I have said many times, we must let science lead, and the administration is not listening to science and NOAA is not sticking up for the science. (Emphasis added.)

Finally, even Northern Dynasty’s stock price took a major hit in the wake of the Pebble FEIS. From a high of $2.34 cents a share on July 22, the price plummeted to a low of $1.51 a share just days later—a drop of over 30 percent despite what Pebble CEO Collier called “the most significant day in the 15-year history of the Pebble Project.”

What all this means isn’t hard to decipher:

Almost no one paying attention believes that Northern Dynasty Minerals has either the capacity or the actual intention to build the Pebble Mine. Northern Dynasty is a small Canadian company with a decade-long history of financial failure. Because it has no other assets, the company has nowhere to go but forward to permitting as fast as possible while Trump is still President—in the hope that, once and for all, some risk-averse, anti-social, anti-conservation, anti-wild salmon investor will pay billions to turn this mining disaster—somehow—into a reality.

In other words, Pebble’s management and its beleaguered shareholders are hoping for a financial bail-out, and an Army Corps permit this Fall is at the heart of their strategy to get it.

Notably, through the $12.5 million bonus clause in his contract, Pebble CEO Collier has a personal stake in that strategy too. While the Army Corps’ release last week of the Pebble FEIS has brought him one step closer to collecting, his project—ultimately—is as doomed as ever. 

About the Authors

Joel Reynolds

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

Join Us

When you sign up you'll become a member of NRDC's Activist Network. We will keep you informed with the latest alerts and progress reports.