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.

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