Questions surround Pebble Mine’s environmental review

As a decision on the open-pit mine nears, documents acquired through the Freedom of Information Act unveil agency critiques.

 

The sun rises over the Nushagak watershed which eventually flows to the Bristol Bay. Multiple agencies critiqued the Pebble Mine project because of its potential impact on the Bristol Bay’s thriving and consistent annual salmon runs.

This story was originally published by Hakai Magazine and is republished here with permission.

Just months away from deciding whether to permit construction of the proposed Pebble Mine, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) is wrapping up its environmental review. In early April, USACE received the last round of feedback from a selection of federal, state, local, and tribal groups. Some of that feedback — recently acquired and released by the Bristol Bay Native Corporation (BBNC) using the Freedom of Information Act — is quite pointed.

Reviewing the released critiques, Dennis McLerran, who from 2010 to 2017 ran the Environmental Protection Agency office in the region that includes Alaska, says that stakeholder agencies think USACE is taking too narrow of a view of the Pebble Mine’s potential environmental impacts, and isn’t addressing fundamental issues with the project even at this late stage.

The Pebble Limited Partnership (PLP) plans to build an open-pit mine in a largely undeveloped stretch of southwest Alaska to extract a fraction of what may be the world’s biggest unexploited deposit of copper and gold. The proposed site for the mine lies under two rivers that drain into Bristol Bay, home to one of the world’s most productive wild salmon fisheries. That geography has contributed to a long and heated battle over the proposed mine, which has gained new momentum under the Trump administration.

The comments released by the BBNC — an organization representing Indigenous people with present or historical ties to the Bristol Bay region — come from a number of expert agencies including the EPA, the Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Alaska Department of Natural Resources, as well as the Curyung and Nondalton tribal councils, whose members live in the vicinity of the proposed mine. This stakeholder feedback, usually kept confidential, was given to USACE as part of its ongoing environmental impact assessment. The BBNC has been a vocal opponent of the mine since 2009.

The critiques raise concerns about everything from the potential effects on fish to how the mine plans to treat the huge volumes of water it will use during operations and after it is retired.

“They’re frustrated by the lack of analysis and lack of responsiveness to many of these issues and questions.”

“These comments have been consistently raised for years by other agencies,” says McLerran. “They’re frustrated by the lack of analysis and lack of responsiveness to many of these issues and questions.”

BBNC official Daniel Cheyette says he is encouraged that agencies are repeating many of the same criticisms of the latest draft of USACE’s environmental impact statement (EIS) as they had about last year’s draft. “They confirm that there’s still a lot of work to be done,” Cheyette says, calling out evidence of data gaps and missing information.

In their feedback on the near-final EIS, several agencies, including the EPA and the Fish and Wildlife Service, characterize USACE as minimizing threats to salmon and their habitats. The agencies’ critiques point to research showing that a diversity of habitats and salmon populations are what enable Bristol Bay’s thriving and consistent annual runs. Another recurring critique of the EIS is its lack of an adequate plan for mitigation to compensate for or offset the considerable losses of salmon-supporting streams and wetlands that would result from construction and operation of the mine and its supporting infrastructure.

In comments on behalf of the Nondalton Tribal Council, Richard Borden, a mining expert and former employee of the Rio Tinto mining group, calls PLP’s plans for long-term water treatment “extremely complex” and unproven at the proposed volumes. He also finds PLP’s plan for how the mine would eventually be closed and the land reclaimed “at best conceptual in nature,” and lacking enough detail to judge its performance or practicality.

Responding to the comments released by the BBNC, PLP argues that most of the agencies’ feedback can be addressed easily. In a statement provided by spokesperson Mike Heatwole, PLP says that while some agencies pointed out technical concerns, “some of the comments are based on factual or technical misunderstandings.” The company also says the BBNC “cherry-picks” from the comments to support its views, an accusation that Cheyette returned.

Ultimately, McLerran says, “Many of the issues in the comments go to the core of whether there are technical flaws in the analysis or not. The use of inadequate models, the failure to look at longer term cumulative impacts issues, the failure to adequately address impacts to streams and wetlands are all quite important.

“I am sure many of the agency comments will be addressed in the final document in some form, but the ultimate test is whether they will have been addressed adequately,” he adds.

That USACE’s near-final EIS is still beleaguered by such critiques so late in the assessment process fits into a pattern identified in a recent study published by researchers in the United States and Canada which shows surprisingly regular and concerning patterns of scientific shortcomings in environmental impact statements from the United States and six other nations.

While this study didn’t examine the Pebble Mine itself, the findings are reminiscent of critiques of the mine’s EIS. One consistent flaw of EISs, the study shows, is that most assume that mitigation measures will be effective, even without evidence or in the face of contrary evidence. According to the study, few EISs predict significant environmental damage or consider the ways damage can build up over time. For example, assessments of mining proposals frequently fail to consider the century-scale potential impacts that mines have on water quality.

With the Pebble Mine’s final EIS expected in June or July, David Hobbie, regulatory chief for USACE’s Alaska District, says the corps is continuing to work with other agencies to address all their comments. “Addressing doesn’t always equal the same as everybody agreeing,” he adds.

But here, the Curyung Tribal Council’s First Chief Thomas Tilden and tribal administrator Courtenay Carty are highly critical of USACE’s process. “On the substance, the Corps seems to equate the act of listening to issues raised by cooperating agencies with meaningfully addressing those issues,” they wrote in their comments.

On May 22, weeks after agencies had submitted their final comments, USACE introduced a twist to the Pebble Mine’s story: the Corps announced its preferred route — what it deems the least environmentally harmful but still practical option — for transporting metals out of the mine. The route is considerably different from the plan originally proposed by PLP, and the company quickly embraced the change. Opponents of the project roundly condemned the last-minute switch, saying the new route was given only superficial scrutiny. “It doesn’t look anything like the project that the preliminary final EIS analyzed and that the cooperating agencies had a chance to look at,” says Cheyette.

According to USACE, this decision will allow it to pin down the project’s precise environmental impacts, and finally inform PLP what it would take to offset them. Hobbie says the corps will reveal that mitigation plan later this year when it announces the approval or rejection of the mine.

Outside agencies and the public are not expected to get another chance to provide critiques and comments on the Pebble Mine plan before then.

Ashley Braun is a freelance science and environmental journalist based in Seattle, Washington. She also works as an editor and fact checker. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

High Country News Classifieds
  • CARDIGAN WELSH CORGIS
    10 adorable, healthy puppies for sale. 4 males and 6 females. DM and PRA clear. Excellent pedigree from champion lineage. One Red Brindle male. The...
  • A CHILDREN'S BOOK FOR THE CLIMATE CRISIS!!
    "Goodnight Fossil Fuels!" is a an engaging, beautiful, factual and somewhat silly picture book by a climate scientist and a climate artist, both based in...
  • DIGITAL ADVOCACY & MEMBERSHIP MANAGER
    The Digital Advocacy & Membership Manager will be responsible for creating and delivering compelling, engaging digital content to Guardians members, email activists, and social media...
  • DIGITAL OUTREACH COORDINATOR, ARIZONA
    Job Title: Digital Outreach Coordinator, Arizona Position Location: Phoenix or Tucson, AZ Status: Salaried Job ID Number: 52198 We are looking for you! We are...
  • DESCHUTES LAND TRUST VOLUNTEER PROGRAM MANAGER
    The Deschutes Land Trust is seeking an experienced Volunteer Program Manager to join its dedicated team! Deschutes Land Trust conserves and cares for the lands...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT
    The Nature Conservancy in Wyoming seeks an experienced fundraiser to join our team. We're looking for a great communicator who is passionate about conservation and...
  • INDIAN COUNTRY FELLOWSHIP
    Western Leaders Network is accepting applications for its paid, part-time, 6-month fellowship. Mentorship, training, and engaging tribal leaders in advancing conservation initiatives and climate policy....
  • MULESHOE RANCH PRESERVE MANAGER
    The Muleshoe Ranch Preserve Manager develops, manages, and advances conservation programs, plans and methods for large-scale geographic areas. The Muleshoe Ranch Cooperative Management Area (MRCMA)...
  • ARTEMIS PROGRAM MANAGER
    Founded in 1936, the National Wildlife Federation (NWF or Federation) is America's largest and most trusted grassroots conservation organization with 52 state/territorial affiliates and more...
  • ASSISTANT OR ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR OF ENVIRONMENTAL HUMANITIES
    Assistant or Associate Professor of Environmental Humanities Whitman College The Environmental Humanities Program at Whitman College seeks candidates for a tenure-track position beginning August 2023...
  • ANNUAL FUND MANAGER
    Working closely with the Foundation's leadership, the Annual Fund Manager is responsible for the oversight and management of the Foundation's annual operating fund. This is...
  • DATABASE ADMINISTRATOR
    Looking for someone who loves public land and understands the value and importance of data in reaching shared goals as part of a high-functioning team....
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    High Country Conservation Advocates (HCCA) in Crested Butte, CO is seeking an enthusiastic Executive Director who is passionate about the public lands, natural waters and...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR OF VOLUNTEER PROGRAMS
    Are you passionate about connecting people to the outdoors? The Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA) is looking for someone with volunteer management experience to join...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The conservation non-profit Invasive Species Action Network seeks an executive director. We are focused on preventing the human-caused spread of invasive species by promoting voluntary...
  • NEW BOOK: A FEAST OF ECSTATIC VERSE AND IMAGERY
    Dynamic fine art photographer offers use of images to raise funds. Available for use by conservation groups. Contact at www.anecstaticgathering.com.
  • WANTED: TALENTED WRITER
    Write the introduction to A Feast of Ecstatic Verse and Imagery, a book concerning nature and spirituality. Contact at www.anecstaticgathering.com. Writer who works for conservation/nature...
  • MT STATE DIRECTOR- THE WILDERNESS SOCIETY
    The Montana State Director is a member of The Wilderness Society's (TWS) Conservation program team who plays a leading role in advancing the organization's mission...
  • HIGH COUNTRY NEWS EDITORIAL INTERNS
    High Country News, an award-winning magazine covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, is looking for its next cohort of editorial interns....
  • THE MAGICAL UNIVERSE OF THE ANCIENTS: A DESERT JOURNAL
    Bears Ears, Chaco Canyon, and other adventures in the Four Corners area. 60 photos and lively journals. Purchase hc $35 or pb $25 from bigwoodbooks.com...