Pebble Mine Permit Application Can Wait

But Pebble Mine CEO Tom Collier, with a $12.5 million personal bonus on the line, vows to press forward, hoping to get a permit by summer, in disregard of pleas by Bristol Bay leaders and NRDC for pause, citing urgent need for coronavirus response.

If any of us expected the forces of environmental destruction to take a break for the COVID-19 pandemic, think again. 

Take, for example, the Pebble Mine:

Over the past ten years, the small, underfunded Canadian company Northern Dynasty Minerals—the sole remaining partner in the “Pebble Partnership” behind the proposed Pebble Mine—has distinguished itself by consistent financial failure. It did so despite constant promotion of its widely condemned project, which threatens to destroy the greatest wild salmon fishery on Earth. Its partnerships have disintegrated, its share price has plummeted over 95 percent or more, and, all in all, it’s a fool’s errand to consider how many wildly optimistic financial assurances have come to nothing along the way.

Since February, its financial condition has gone from bad to worse—yet again. From $0.66 a share on February 12th, it landed on $0.39 a share at its most recent close on April 3rd.

It’s no surprise, then, that the company has recently announced that its single-minded self-promotion will continueto secure a federal permit decision from the Army Corps of Engineers (“Army Corps”) by the end of summerperiod.

According to Pebble CEO Tom Collier (with a personal $12.5 million bonus riding on adherence to the permitting schedule):

While it feels like the entire world has come to a halt because of COVID-19, many organizations, Pebble included, have modified their approach to work but remain focused on core activities. For us this means making sure we are doing everything necessary to ensure that the project schedule published by the USACE of a Final EIS and a ROD by mid-2020 remains on track. (Emphasis added.)

Overwhelming local opposition, scientific consensus of irreparable harm, financial failure, and an unprecedented global health crisisall of this fades to insignificance for Northern Dynasty and its shareholders as, unconcerned for the wellbeing of the people of Bristol Bay, they seek to sustain their underfunded project long enough to entice someone—another partner or another major investor—to bail them out.

Just more of the same from Northern Dynasty. The real question is what the Army Corps will do about it.

Request for help – Curyung Tribe

Last week, the federally recognized Curyung Tribe in Bristol Bay filed an urgent plea with leadership of the Army Corps for more time. Having fought the “existential threat” posed by the Pebble Mine for over a decade, the Tribe movingly describes the paramount need at this moment for the people of the region to focus on protecting themselves and their communities—from spread of the deadly virus in a rural region of Alaska where health facilities are inarguably inadequate to face the imminent health emergency, at a time when the annual influx of visitors for salmon fishing season poses enormous challenges:

[T]he Kanakanak Hospital in Dillingham today has a mere 16 beds for a region that includes 26 villages and 7,000 residents, and routinely sends patients with significant respiratory challenges to Anchorage. Meanwhile, another Bristol Bay commercial salmon season is on the horizon, and Bristol Bay communities are confronting decisions about whether to allow and how to handle the influx of literally thousands of commercial fishermen and seafood processing workers. (Emphasis added.)

Request for extension – Bristol Bay leaders

This plea followed a formal request submitted on March 19th by Bristol Bay’s tribal, corporate, and seafood leaders, asking, in light of the urgent human needs posed by the pandemic, that the Army Corps defer its schedule and allow cooperating agencies more time to review the Preliminary Final Environmental Impact Statement “PFEIS”) for the permit. The Army Corps’ regional staff ignored that request and the rationale on which it was based until, on the date the comment period expired, they belatedly extended the comment period by a meaningless one week.


Request to pause -- NRDC

On March 27th, NRDC, too, filed a request for a pause, citing the overriding prejudice to the people of the region of pressing forward with Pebble’s permit application:

A delay in the permitting process will not materially prejudice the interests of the Pebble Partnership, which still must seek dozens of other state and federal permits before moving forward. On the other hand, permitting the Pebble Mine now, under these circumstances, would materially prejudice the people of Bristol Bay. The Corps’ limited resources would be better spent responding to the COVID-19 health crisis, not permitting a mine opposed by the overwhelming majority of people in Bristol Bay. (Emphasis added.)

The Army Corps has not responded.

And given its handling of the permit process so far, it’s hard to be optimistic. Just last month the Corps released another series of Requests for Information to fill the myriad data gaps in the environmental review identified by stakeholders of all kinds, including federal agencies like the Department of the Interior, which called the draft environmental impact statement so deficient that “it precludes meaningful review.”

Notably, the public has not been, and will not be, given any opportunity to comment on this new information or any of the information requested by the Corps from Northern Dynasty—not to mention the 13 significant project changes announced by the company—following the conclusion of the public comment period almost a year ago.

We all understand and appreciate that the Army Corps is on the front line of COVID-19 response nationally, where it needs most urgently to be, building and equipping emergency hospitals, recently, for example, in Central Park in New York City. We hope the agency will respond positively to the requests for a pause in its Pebble permit proceeding. The Corps is a public agency, answerable to the needs of the publicnot the joint venture partner of a small, underfunded Canadian mining company with a consistent history of financial failure

With hundreds of thousands of lives at risk in this country from the COVID-19 pandemic—and the people of Bristol Bay in crisis to respond—Pebble’s long opposed permit application can wait. We urge the Army Corps to listen and Northern Dynasty and its financially beleaguered shareholders to stand down.

Take action now. Contact the Army Corps.

About the Authors

Joel Reynolds

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

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