Like a Zombie, Reckless Pebble Mine Terrorizes Bristol Bay

Widely considered dead, massive mining scheme proposed for Bristol Bay headwaters by underfunded Canadian company is likely to be permitted this summer by Army Corps of Engineers despite unsolved technical, financial, and environmental flaws, deep opposition in Alaska, and blatant racial and social injustice.

“You mean the Pebble Mine isn’t dead yet?”

This is a question often expressed—and for good reason—about this widely condemned, repeatedly abandoned mining scheme. It should be dead, but it’s not:

  • For decades, the people who live in Bristol Bay, Alaska have said in overwhelming numbers that they don’t want the Pebble Mine, with a strong 62 percent state-wide also opposed, according to a new poll released just days ago. 
  • The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) has determined that even a mine one-sixth the size of that now proposed for permitting could cause “catastrophic” harm to the region and its world class wild salmon fishery. 
  • Four of the world’s major mining companies have walked away from the project—Mitsubishi (2011), Anglo American (2013), Rio Tinto (2014), and First Quantum Minerals (2018)—in the face of local opposition and the financial and technical risks of the project. 
  • And there is reputational risk, since there is no more widely-condemned mining project anywhere today than the Pebble Mine.

In fact, the Pebble Mine makes no senseeconomically, technically, socially, environmentally, legally, or morallyand it never has.

But, like a zombie, this senseless scheme has proven difficult to kill. Now 100 percent owned by a small, underfunded Canadian company called Northern Dynasty Minerals, this disaster-in-the-making has been revived by the Trump Administrationthe most aggressively anti-conservation Administration in modern timesto terrorize the people of Alaska yet again and, most especially, the people of Bristol Bay.

Alannah Hurley, Executive Director, United Tribes of Bristol Bay

U.S. Congress

In congressional testimony last fall, Executive Director of United Tribes of Bristol Bay Alannah Hurley, representing 80 percent of the people in the region, summed it up this way:

Why is it that Bristol Bay’s First People, to whom this federal government owes a sacred trust responsibility, are continually treated as second class citizens by agencies of the United States…. This is a human rights issue. This is an indigenous people’s issue.  This is an environmental justice issue for our people. If our land and water are devastated, our people are devastated. The Army Corps is not listening, . . . [and the company is] dismissive of our people’s concerns.

Why indeed?

In this time of long-overdue focus on the structural barriers to equality that remain deeply embedded in our society, the Pebble Mine and its permit review exemplify the depth and breadth of those barriers in federal permitting. In fact, the blatant attempt by the Trump Administration to elevate the interests of a small, financially challenged Canadian company over the interests and longstanding opposition of the Tribes and Native communities of Bristol Bay is a prime example of structural racism at work. These communities—the First People of Bristol Bay—have done everything within their power for decades to defend their families and their way of life from a preposterous project that, science has told us, will inevitably contaminate their region, their resources, their economic lifeblood, their subsistence way of life, and their culture. 

And yet despite this overwhelming opposition—and against all science, reason, and justice—our federal government, through the Army Corps of Engineers, is primed, at the end of a rushed and deeply flawed permitting process, to green-light this desperate Canadian-owned scheme. Sadly, there has been nothing the people of Bristol Bay could do to persuade the Army Corps even to give them a fair hearing, much less to deny the permit.

This is a 21st century example of entrenched racism in our system of government—a modern-day extension of the incalculable harms inflicted on Native Americans for centuries in this country—that has inexorably led, time and time again, to silencing their voices, appropriating their homelands, undermining their culture, and eviscerating their way of life. And it seems not to matter even how productive and sustainable their way of life has been over millennia, based in this case on an economic engine second-to-none in Alaska that generates 30 to 60 million wild salmon each summer, $1.5 billion in annual revenue, and 15,000 jobs.

For its part, rather than acknowledging the intense regional and in-state opposition to their reckless scheme, the Pebble Partnership and its parent Northern Dynasty (“Pebble”) have a long history of ignoring local communities, breaking promises, and trying to divide the region through attempts to buy support. Recently, it announced a meager “revenue sharing program” in the hope of creating the appearance of local support, and just last week it announced a non-binding Memorandum of Understanding with the Alaska Peninsula Corporation (“APC”) to manage a consortium to develop a transportation and infrastructure corridor for the mine. Notably, APC claims just 800 shareholdersless than ten percent of the 10,000 shareholders of long-time Pebble opponent Bristol Bay Native Corporation, which has announced that it will refuse access across its land for the mine corridor.

About the revenue sharing program, United Tribes of Bristol Bay had this to say:

Today’s announcement is a clear attempt to create the illusion of local support by promising potential future dividends from a company that does not have the capacity to follow through on their empty promises. Local leaders [are] disturbed by Pebble’s latest move [and consider] it “predatory” as it is clearly an attempt to exploit local people impacted economically by the COVID health crisis, with no realistic plan to follow through.

According to Norm Van Vactor, Executive Director of the Bristol Bay Economic Development Corporation:

This is just an eleventh-hour desperate attempt by Pebble to make empty promises offering breadcrumbs to the very people whose lives will be ruined by this project. Breadcrumbs the company can’t even afford to spare as they’re going broke and desperately trying to fundraise just to get through permitting. We see through this desperation by Pebble and aren’t falling for their empty promises, Pebble cannot be trusted. Our resolve to fight this project is only strengthened by their disrespectful and transparent attempts at bribery.

From the outset of its permit process, the Army Corps has marginalized or impeded meaningful participation by the Bristol Bay Tribes and communities, and their voicesthe longstanding opposition of the people who live in the region and will suffer the consequences of the Corps’ rushed decisionhave not been heard. For example, despite culturally essential grounds like conflicts with subsistence hunting season, commercial and subsistence fishing season, and religious holidays like Russian Christmas, Bristol Bay Tribal requests for reasonable time to comment on this project of enormous technical complexity and potential impact have been uniformly denied, from comments on scoping to the draft environmental impact statement (“EIS”) to the preliminary final EIS, as part of the consultation process mandated by federal law. 

According to Pebble CEO Tom Collier, such requests were only a “red herring” since meaningful participation “is not about lengths of timelines to complete the process”—as if that has nothing to do with the ability of the public to meaningfully engage. (Mr. Collier failed to mention that he has a $12.5 million personal bonus riding on adherence to the Army Corps’ schedule.) 

When in the insufficient time allotted they nevertheless submitted comments, citing a myriad of significant flaws in the project and in the Army Corps’ process, those comments have been largely ignored by the Army Corps in deference to permitting schedule, as reflected, for example, in the Corps’ blanket refusal following the DEIS to consider requests for additional field studies to fill important data gaps in the project’s potential impact on salmon. Despite the Tribes hiring engineers and technical experts to review the various drafts of the EIS, the Army Corps limited the material available to the Tribes in consultation—restricting them to topics such as subsistence and land use.

Most recently, under threat of COVID-19 transmission in the Bristol Bay region, the Tribes requested a pause in the permitting process that would allow them to focus their attention on preventing a recurrence of the devastating impacts on the region a century ago as a result of the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic. Although the request was based on undeniable limits in hospital beds and other medical facilities or equipment in the region—and even though EPA cited COVID-19 in suspending enforcement against environmental polluters—the Army Corps refused to budge and denied the Tribe’s request.

None of these examples—considered in isolation or collectively—can adequately convey the barriers of injustice that have confronted the Tribes and communities of Bristol Bay in their advocacy over 15 years against a massive mining project that almost none of them wants and almost all of them fear. While complete public agreement on any major permit decision for any significant project—no matter how dangerous—is impossible, the consistency of opposition to the Pebble Mine by local residents at 80 percent and above is extraordinary. With that level of sustained consensus, they have unquestionably earned the right to be heard that our federal laws—in theory but clearly not in practice—guarantee.

In the case of the Pebble Mine, the absence of basic social license has never wavered, and the opposition will never relent. This is something that each of Pebble’s mining partners heard first-hand before, one by one, they abandoned their participation in the project.

Our federal government needs to hear it too. Instead of listening to corporate executives of a small Canadian company in dire financial straits—with a CEO counting on a $12.5 million personal bonus when the permit is granted—the Army Corps should be listening to the people of the region. Bristol Bay is their home, Bristol Bay is their future, and the Pebble Mine will never be welcome.

Bristol Bay Region

Robert Glenn Ketchum

About the Authors

Joel Reynolds

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

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