Army Corps Releases a Slapdash Environmental Review of Alaska’s Pebble Mine

But the proposed gold and copper mine’s catastrophic threats to the waterways, salmon, and people of Bristol Bay haven’t changed.

Credit: U.S. EPA

In an apparent attempt to rubber-stamp one of the most widely opposed mining projects in the world, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has released a woefully inadequate environmental review of Northern Dynasty Minerals’ proposal to build a massive open-pit gold and copper mine at the headwaters of Alaska’s nearly pristine Bristol Bay.

As host to the most productive wild sockeye salmon run on earth, Bristol Bay sustains a $1.5 billion fishery that drives the economy of southwestern Alaska. You would think the Army Corps would take its time ensuring that a mine in the area would be environmentally sound. Not so.

Called “rushed and—at best—superficial” by NRDC’s Pebble Mine expert Taryn Kiekow Heimer, the review was completed in less than a year and ignores numerous concerns about the project’s potential impacts on the local ecology, economy, and traditional ways of life. It also limits the scope of its analysis—for example, by refusing to consider the potential environmental impacts of a tailings dam failure. (Such disasters have occurred in recent years in British Columbia and Brazil, with deadly consequences.) The Army Corps egregiously concludes that Pebble Mine would have no long-term impact on the “health of the commercial fisheries in Bristol Bay or Cook Inlet.” Although the draft environmental impact statement is far from a final decision, it greenlights multiple ways in which the mine’s construction can move forward.

For nearly a decade, Pebble Mine has spawned ongoing public outcry and protests from nearly every corner of the local community—indigenous Alaskan tribes, business leaders, fishermen, and conservationists. Now the public can join them in calling for the Pebble Mine project to be buried for good by submitting comments to the Army Corps through May 31 or showing up in person at one of the public hearings that have been scheduled. Here’s a quick refresh on why.

The EPA has called the mine “potentially catastrophic.”

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released a scientific report in 2014 determining that the mine—which could be as large as two miles wide and 2,000 feet deep—would pose a catastrophic risk to the environment, potentially destroying up to 94 miles of streams, nearly 5,000 acres of wetlands, and 450 acres of ponds and lakes. According to the report, which was backed by twice peer-reviewed, scientific data, Pebble Mine would also need to store up to 10 billion tons of mining waste—forever!—in a wet and seismically active region. Just one earthquake (not an if, but a when) could compromise the waste’s holding structures and contaminate the area’s waterways, fast.

Pebble Mine could tank the regional economy.

Bristol Bay’s prolific salmon production is undoubtedly southwestern Alaska’s economic linchpin, providing more than $1.5 billion in annual revenue and jobs for 14,000 people. The bay’s ecosystem—featuring five species of Pacific salmon plus brown bears, seals, otters, moose, wolverines, bald eagles, and so much more—also draws sport fishers and other tourists from around the world.

Locals are not on board.

A poll commissioned last summer by the United Tribes of Bristol Bay shows that a whopping 80 percent of residents see Pebble Mine as a significant threat to fishing in Bristol Bay, and 70 percent think the mine and the salmon fishery cannot successfully coexist.

Even investors are jumping ship.

A long list of Pebble Mine’s financial backers—including four of the world’s leading mining companies—have already abandoned the project. Led by Tiffany & Co., jewelry companies from around the world say they will shun Pebble Mine gold, concluding that “there are certain places where mining should simply never occur. Alaska’s Bristol Bay is one such place.” Agreed.

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