Trump Administration Ignores Pebble Mine’s Dangers to Alaska

Army Corps issues recklessly rushed and fatally flawed environmental review of the Pebble Mine.

©Robert Glenn Ketchum, 2020

The Army Corps of Engineers issued its final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the proposed gold and copper mining project in Bristol Bay Alaska called Pebble Mine. The analysis is full of gaps, deficiencies, and legal blunders. The Army Corps conducted a hasty review at breakneck speed and ignored the tribes, cooperating agencies, and other stakeholders who identified serious errors in the agency’s process.

In its rush to permit the Pebble Mine, the Army Corps has shown a complete disregard for the people and environment in Bristol Bay.

The Corps’ earlier draft EIS was panned by a former Rio Tinto mining expert as “fatally flawed,” and a member of Congress called it a “sham” and an “abomination.” Several federal and state agencies registered serious concerns in lengthy comments, including the U.S. Department of the Interior, which described it as “so inadequate that it precludes meaningful analysis.”

The final EIS is no better. 

The Army Corps’ absolute lack of regulatory rigor has resulted in a grossly deficient permitting process and woefully inadequate final EIS. The Corps has cut legal corners, relied on incomplete or outmoded science, and failed to require any economic feasibility analysis. Worse, the Army Corps has completely ignored the voices of Bristol Bay’s Indigenous peoples and tribes who adamantly oppose the Pebble Mine.

The Pebble Mine would threaten the world’s greatest wild salmon fishery, which generates $1.5 billion in annual revenue and 14,000 jobs. Salmon have sustained Bristol Bay subsistence culture, community, and identity of Alaska Natives for millennia. It's no wonder that the people of Bristol Bay and Alaska overwhelmingly oppose it.

Yet the Army Corps issued a final EIS that ignores the very real risks to Bristol Bay—and the economies, people, wildlife, and fish that depend upon it.

Stop the Pebble Mine, Save Bristol Bay

While the flaws in the EIS are too many to count, here are six big ones.

  • Significant, last-minute project change. In May, the Army Corps changed its recommendation for the project’s entire transportation and infrastructure corridor. The Army Corps did not offer the public an opportunity to comment and, in fact, did not even give notice until the change was revealed by chance through a FOIA request and later confirmed in a media briefing. This new route was not fully vetted in the draft EIS. As the Bristol Bay Native Corporation (BBNC) clearly demonstrates in this briefing, all the key elements of the port have now changed in the final EIS:
    • The port facilities were moved from Cottonwood Bay to a location north into Iliamna Bay.
    • The main wharf was also moved from the mouth of Cottonwood Bay north into Iliamna Bay.
    • The amount of dredging necessary for the new port site doubled, from 650,000 cubic yards of dredged material to 1.1 million cubic yards.  
  • No permission from property owners. Notably, the new northern route cuts through land owned by several Bristol Bay entities that refuse to grant Pebble access to their properties—making this option decidedly not practicable (or available). The Bristol Bay Native Corporation, which owns both surface and subsurface rights along the new transportation corridor, has expressly denied Pebble permission: “As the largest private landowner in the Bristol Bay region, Bristol Bay Native Corporation (BBNC) is again writing to the Army Corps to reiterate that our surface and subsurface estate is not available to the Pebble Limited Partnership (PLP) to use for any components of its proposed Pebble Mine Project…BBNC has not extended and will not extend to PLP permission to occupy or trespass on BBNC’s lands or to make use of BBNC’s subsurface resources.” Similarly, Pedro Bay Corporation (PBC) “has not, and will not, consent to the Pebble Limited Partnership’s (PLP) use of its lands for the Pebble project…PBC has authority to deny access to its lands, and expressly does so…” Igiugig Village Council (IVC) released the following statement: “Igiugig has been very clear that Diamond Point [the proposed port site] is not available for Pebble’s use. As stated last month, our Tribe has existing plans for our Diamond Point site that are and will not be compatible with Pebble’s plans, and we have informed both the Army Corps and Pebble of this fact.Their insistence on pushing this impractical route forward, which is reliant on lands not open to Pebble development, disrespectfully ignores our Tribal sovereignty. IVC is committed to the sustainability and health of future generations and Pebble does not fit into our vision for a thriving future.”

    That the Army Corps made this unavailable route the preferred alternative—over Native landowner objections—is not only incomprehensible, but it is also wholly inconsistent with past practice, where the Corps removed alternatives from consideration due to a landowner’s refusal to sell its property.
  • Fake mine plan. The Army Corps’ permitting process has focused on what is essentially a fictitious mine proposal—one likely designed by Pebble solely to survive initial environmental review while skirting meaningful review of the much larger project anticipated for full buildout. The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) requires an environmental analysis of the full scope of the project. Breaking it down into smaller parts amounts to unlawful “segmentation,” but that is exactly what the Corps is doing here. Pebble’s proposed 20-year mine plan for a 1.4 billion ton mine—accessing just 10 percent of the total ore deposit—is preposterous. All signs indicate that Pebble in fact intends a much larger, longer project. Pebble proponents have admitted as much: At industry events, Northern Dynasty’s president and CEO touts the full 10 billion ton resource and advertises the mine as a “multigenerational opportunity” that will last “perhaps centuries into the future.” Indeed, the 20-year proposal is not economically feasible without future build out. According to Richard Borden, an expert who managed the environmental oversight and permitting for Rio Tinto’s copper mines, the “conceptual financial analysis provided by [PLP] for the 20-year mine plan . . . is fatally flawed.”  He calculates that the plan has “a negative NPV [net present value] of approximately three billion dollars.” Yet the Corps fails to evaluate a full (economically viable) buildout. 
  • Unprecedented and unproven water treatment plans. Given the very high geochemical risk of the Pebble ore body, the extremely wet climate and the extreme sensitivity of the Bristol Bay watershed, water management at the proposed mine is critical. To prevent widespread pollution of the watershed, the mine will depend upon two massive, technically complex water treatment plants for which Pebble has offered only “conceptual” plans that the Corps itself acknowledges are completely untested. In spite of this daunting technological challenge, and the fact that the water treatment plants are one of the linchpins ensuring the mine does not pollute the watershed, the design offered by Pebble is, in the words of the Corps, merely a “general description” at the “conceptual” stage. Pebble’s designs fail to “include specifics as to the operating conditions,” nor do they “show intra-plant treatment approaches.” Worse, Pebble’s assumptions are backed up solely by “literature references” that are not only “dated,” but whose “information appears to be optimistic.” 
  • Failure to consider a tailings dam breach. Pebble Mine would require two tailings storage facilities—massive basins filled with billions of tons of toxic rock and slurry. Ensuring these dams do not burst and release a flood of tailings into the watershed—as other modern dams have done recently—remains a daunting engineering challenge. The destruction from a full or even partial release of tailings would be devastating to the watershed. Yet the Army Corps fails to analyze the impact of a potential tailings dam failure. The Army Corps may want to bury its head in the sand about catastrophic failure, but mines can and do fail, including recent mining dam failures in British Columbia in 2014 and Brazil in 2015 and 2019. A modern mine—even with advanced technology and permitting requirements—simply cannot be engineered to withstand the inherent dangers of mining in perpetuity. Given that the Pebble Mine will have to store toxic waste forever, the Army Corps should have evaluated the risks of that failure.
  • Woefully inadequate compensatory mitigation. To mitigate the permanent loss of more than 2,000 acres of wetlands, Pebble proposes only three small mitigation projects that would provide unquantified but likely minor benefits to fish habitat in the Bristol Bay region, including:
    • Improving municipal wastewater treatment systems in three small villages (less than 700 people total) on or near Lake Iliamna
    • Upgrading a handful of existing fish culverts
    • Cleaning up marine debris at the old port site. This mitigation plan—last revised in January 2020, before the change in transportation corridor—is woefully outdated. It’s also woefully inadequate. This mitigation would, at best, provide minimal environmental benefit compared to the maximum environmental damage associated with developing the mine.

Because of the Army Corps’ irresponsible haste, there are a wide array of issues that undermine the integrity of the final EIS and the permit process as a whole, including continuing to ignore missing information and allowing baseline data collection and various scientific studies to occur after the EIS and permitting decisions are made. Wetlands, rivers, and streams that will be impacted by the proposed mine still have not been mapped. Fish, water quality, hydrologic studies, and wildlife surveys remain missing or incomplete. Most egregious, the Army Corps continues to limit tribal consultation.

Bristol Bay is simply too special to risk on a rushed, inadequate permitting process. The time is now to stop this runaway train.

Stop the Pebble Mine and protect Alaska's wilderness

About the Authors

Taryn Kiekow Heimer

Deputy Director, Marine Mammal Protection Project, Nature Program

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