Alaska’s Bristol Bay, a region teeming with fat bears and the richest run of sockeye salmon in the world, is one of the wildest lands left in North America. Now, the prospect of an unprecedented mining district in the dead center of the area’s verdant tundra and flowing streams just took a mighty step forward.
On Friday, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers released a much anticipated final environmental review of the proposed Pebble Mine — a long process triggered in 2017 after the Trump administration’s first EPA chief met with the mine’s top brass and then promptly gave the derailed project another shot. The Army Corps of Engineers has now concluded the mine — which would require the construction of a major transportation corridor, multiple power stations, a 188-mile gas pipeline, wastewater treatment plants, a new port, along with a mine itself that could be some 2,000 feet deep — will produce no lasting, measurable harm to the health of Bristol Bay’s currently flourishing fishery.
Importantly, the final decision to give the Canadian company Northern Dynasty a mining permit (based on this weighty environmental report) won’t happen for 30 to 45 days. Yet even if the Army Corps of Engineers ultimately approves the project — a reality that now looks likely — the mine still faces more, perhaps insurmountable, political and environmental hurdles in the years ahead
Before the Trump administration revived the project, the Obama administration’s EPA essentially rebuked the copper and gold mine (noting it would be “one of the largest mines ever built”) and piled on restrictions that hampered the industrial enterprise. Obama’s EPA found the Pebble Mine “could result in significant and unacceptable adverse effects on ecologically important streams, wetlands, lakes, and ponds and the fishery areas they support.”
While both the Trump administration and current Alaska governor Mike Dunleavy support the Pebble Mine, it still faces heated opposition from the majority of Alaskans, local tribes, various government agencies, bear biologists, and legal experts. Many in opposition emphasized to Mashable that the federal government rushed the review process to win this critical permit while pro-mine government leadership is still in office, while also minimizing or overlooking adverse impacts to the Bristol Bay watershed.
“Science has taken a backseat to politics,” said Joel Reynolds, western director and senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).
The U.S. Department of Interior, for example, scrutinized a draft of the environmental review in 2019 and concluded in a caustic letter to the Army Corps of Engineers that the review “is so inadequate that it precludes meaningful analysis.” The review didn’t account for how “landscape-scale industrialization” would impact both federal land and fishing industries, the land conservation agency found.
The final environmental review remains inadequate, say Bristol Bay locals.
“It’s divorced from what the science says,” said Alaskan bear-viewing guide Drew Hamilton, who is the former assistant manager of Alaska’s bear-filled McNeil River State Game Sanctuary and Refuge.
“It feels like corruption all the way to the top,” Hamilton, who is president of The Friends of McNeil River, an organization opposed to the mine, added. “I know all my peers feel the same way.”
“How much more bad science do we have to put up with?” asked Norm Van Vactor, president of the Bristol Bay Economic Development Corporation. “How long do the residents of this region need to put up with a (Pebble Mine) application process that has been so bogus?”
Change of Plans
Scientists who wrote to the Army Corps of Engineers after reviewing the mining proposal made it clear the project poses serious harm to the Bristol Bay watershed, and the animals therein. “Our overall scientific assessment is that the proposed project will likely have severe negative impacts on important natural resources, including native salmon (Oncorhynchus spp.) water quality, many terrestrial wildlife species, and the long-term ecological health of the impacted area,” Andreas Zedrosser, president of the , concluded in a public comment to the Army Corps of Engineers last year.
Yet beyond these ecological conclusions, the final environmental review included a significant change of course, adding more uncertainty to a mining plan already widely viewed as deeply flawed.
“It feels like corruption all the way to the top.”
Specifically, the Army Corps of Engineers recently decided on a different route (in government-speak called “the preferred alternative”), among several proposed ways, to transport mined copper and gold ore to the coast. “It’s a huge change from what they previously discussed,” said Van Vactor. While the Army Corps of Engineers found this plan to be the least damaging, the new route is rife with problems: In addition to traveling through private, native-owned land, it requires building both a coastal port and the infrastructure needed to dredge a canal for ships traveling through the notoriously rough seas.
“They switched routes under the guise of it somehow being better,” said Hamilton. “But they’re still proposing construction on a landscape that will irreversibly harm the ecosystems that power the fishing and bear viewing economy that we rely on.”
It’s not surprising the Army Corps of Engineers would choose a mining plan that still guarantees environmental damages, though certainly fewer damages than would have occurred without its oversight. The agency seeks to mitigate damage, but not nearly prevent it. “The notion that the Army Corps of Engineers is an environmental agency is simply incorrect,” said the NRDC’s Reynolds. “It’s an infrastructure-building agency.”
Long road ahead
This mining plan might ultimately fail, though not because of potential environmental damages. It might fail because the company Northern Dynasty doesn’t have the rights to build a road through private land. That itself could doom the project. “It goes over property owned by people who say ‘No way, no how,'” emphasized Van Vactor. “I would see this as making (Northern Dynasty’s) situation more untenable.”
What’s more, the Igiugig community who owns land (called Diamond Point) where the port and dredging infrastructure would be built clearly has no appetite for the large-scale mining project.
“Pebble Limited Partnership’s plan for Diamond Point presented in the Environmental Impact Statement does not fit with our plans for Diamond Point, and should not be considered an acceptable alternative,” the Igiugig Village Council told Indian Country Today in May. “The Corps continues to disregard our concerns, has failed in their trust responsibility to adequately consult with our tribe, and has not completed thorough analyses of the impacts this project will have on our people. Igiugig Village Council will continue to put the well-being of our people and our future generations first, as we have since time immemorial.”
If the Pebble Mine wins a federal permit from the Corps (which looks likely), this opens the door for the company’s next steps: acquiring mining and water permits from the state of Alaska, furthering Northern Dyansty’s plans to mine Bristol Bay. “All further permits are contingent on them getting this permit,” said Hamilton.
A question that still looms large, beyond the process of acquiring mining permits, is who’s going to front an untold sum of money to build this big mining district. Northern Dynasty came into existence specifically to earn permission to build this unprecedented copper and gold mine. They aren’t actually miners, and they have little money. “They don’t have the money or expertise to do it,” said the NRDC’s Reynolds. “They have no other assets.” The company needs a well-endowed partner. But, asked Reynolds, what company is going take on the condemnation associated with mining in untrammeled, ecologically flourishing Bristol Bay? Perhaps no one: A veteran mining manager labeled the Pebble Mine plan as “fatally flawed.”
Northern Dynasty, who represents itself through an organization called the Pebble Partnership, told Mashable “The process was not rushed” and the company intends to “engage with all landowners to secure access (to private land).”
“This is Alaska as nature intended.”
“Alaskans, especially the residents of Bristol Bay, have never received the real Pebble story and after a lengthy misinformation campaign many were led to believe a mine at Pebble would harm the fishery,” Pebble Partnership CEO Tom Collier said in a statement. “Today’s report from the USACE turns that lie on its head – returning salmon won’t be harmed, subsistence fishing won’t be harmed, and the commercial fishing industry won’t be harmed.”
From the outset, a mine in Bristol Bay faced the uphill battle of digging into and building on one of the most ecologically productive places on Earth.
“This is Alaska as nature intended,” said Hamilton. “Up to this point people treated the land with respect. Now you have outside interests that have been brought to this place by purely greedy motives.”
A majority of Bristol Bay denizens want the land left alone. Today, it’s thriving while breaking fish run records.
“Why would we want to jeopardize in any shape, form or fashion this incredible resource?” asked Van Vactor.