Author’s update June 1, 2022: The EPA has issued a proposal to protect the Bristol Bay watershed from dumping and discharges from the Pebble Mine Project. As Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), one of the organizations that has sued to protect the Bay, reported: “EPA updated and revised its Proposed Determination [under Obama/Biden] to reflect new developments since 2014, including new science….” EPA will hold public hearings in June, including one virtual hearing on its latest proposal. EPA also invites public comment, with a deadline of July 5. NRDC has prepared a petition to protect Bristol Bay that citizens can join. Please note that the names of signers are likely to become public as part of the federal process. An earlier update to this article, from September 2020, can be found at the end of this page.
About the author: John Abbotts served as an on-site contractor for the US Environmental Protection Agency’s Region 10 office in Seattle, providing technical and administrative support for the Water Division. He resigned in September 2019 in protest over the Trump administration’s numerous attempts to damage the agency’s mission. His resignation statement included a one-page attachment citing three of many examples—one of which was the shameless political interference over Pebble Mine.
The plan to build one of the world’s largest open-pit mines for gold, copper, and molybdenum near Alaska’s Bristol Bay has been extremely controversial from the outset. A political and environmental lightning rod in Alaska, the Pebble Mine Project is a case study in the political corruption of science. At stake is the future of sockeye salmon and Alaska Native culture that depends on the fish in multiple ways.
At stake is the future of sockeye salmon and Alaska Native culture that depends on the fish in multiple ways.
Nearly two decades ago, in 2001, Northern Dynasty Minerals, a subsidiary of a huge Canadian mining company, acquired Alaska state land about 200 miles southwest of Anchorage for Pebble Mine. The company also acquired mineral rights for about 650 square miles in the area, which covered the project area along with extensive additional property that the US Geological Survey listed as the world’s most extensive mineral deposit. Members of the Pebble Limited Partnership waxed and waned with the mine’s economic prospects. By 2011, corporate giants, including Mitsubishi, Anglo American, and the Rio Tinto Group, had abandoned the project. Northern Dynasty is now the only partner left to pursue it.
In spring 2010, before construction started, a group of Alaska Native and fishing interests petitioned EPA to protect the Bristol Bay watershed, using its authority under a section of the US Clean Water Act that allows it to “prohibit, restrict, or deny the discharge of dredge or fill material” to waters of the US if the agency determines that such discharge would have “an unacceptable adverse impact.” Ordinarily for projects near waterbodies, the US Army Corps of Engineers issues the first critical permit, allowing “dredge and fill” (the alteration of water bodies to support development), but EPA has authority to restrict these developments, though the agency rarely uses it.
To review the Alaska petition, EPA’s Region 10 office in Seattle completed an extensive scientific assessment on the mine’s potential effects. The analysis found that the bay supports the world’s largest sockeye salmon fishery, producing an average of 37.5 million sockeye each year—nearly 50 percent of the world’s supply. The assessment concluded that large-scale mining in the Bristol Bay watershed would pose risks to the salmon and to Alaska Native cultures. Although not a regulatory document, the assessment provided scientific support for EPA’s response to the 2010 petition. In July 2014, EPA Region 10 issued a Proposed Determination to restrict dropping dredge or fill mining material that could destroy salmon-bearing streams or tributaries, reduce stream flow in important waters, or eliminate wetlands.
EPA also noted that further steps were required before a final decision on the Proposed Determination, including potential lawsuits. The note was prescient: In summer and autumn 2014, Pebble Mine developers filed three suits against EPA, obtaining a temporary injunction that forced EPA to suspend work on protections.
Then came the 2016 election. After Donald Trump took office, EPA flip-flopped, first proposing to withdraw its Proposed Determination and then reversing itself after enormous public backlash.
In February 2017, just after his inauguration, President Trump appointed Scott Pruitt to head the EPA. The former Oklahoma state attorney general was an antagonist to many environmental protections and had received large donations from the Koch brothers and other oil companies.
After his confirmation, Pruitt began meeting with polluting industries, including Pebble Mine CEO Tom Collier in May 2017. That same month, EPA settled the lawsuits with the mine developers, agreeing to consider withdrawing the Proposed Determination. Then in July 2017, EPA actually proposed withdrawing its 2014 plans to protect the Bristol Bay watershed, setting a 90-day deadline for public comments.
The agency heard an earful. In February 2018, EPA responded to public outrage by temporarily suspending Pruitt’s planned withdrawal of the Proposed Determination to protect Bristol Bay. Citing more than a million comments, EPA admitted, “An overwhelming majority of these commenters expressed opposition to withdrawal of the Proposed Determination . . . Similarly, the vast majority of tribal governments and [Tribal Corporations] did.”
Nonetheless, the temporary decision to allow EPA’s proposed protection to stand made it possible for the federal permitting process to continue. In fact, in December 2017 Pebble Mine had already applied for a crucial permit from the Army Corps to begin dredge and fill operations.
Pruitt did not survive the year as agency head. He resigned in disgrace in July 2018 and was replaced by his deputy, former coal industry lobbyist Michael Wheeler. In November, Alaska elected pro-mine Mike Dunleavy as the state’s new governor.
The new year brought more drama. In June 2019 Dunleavy met with Trump for about 20 minutes during an Air Force One stopover in Anchorage. CNN later revealed that hours before the meeting, Pebble Mine officials had sent Dunleavy talking points to promote the project, including an argument that Pebble stock—once more than $20 a share—had fallen to $0.50 due to uncertainty about EPA approval. CNN also reported that a day after his meeting with Dunleavy, Trump decided to no longer protect Bristol Bay, though EPA did not announce the reversal until a month later, through a news release, which allowed no further public comment. The news reportedly came as a “total shock” to top EPA scientists who had planned to oppose the project. (CNN’s sources remained anonymous to avoid retaliation.)
In July 2020 the Army Corps issued its Final Environmental Impact Statement on Pebble Mine, concluding that under normal operations, the mine would not result in “long-term changes in the health of the commercial fisheries in Bristol Bay.” Among other surprises in the statement, the Army Corps proposed new routes: a two-lane access road to the mine and a natural gas pipeline to supply a generating plant that would power the mine. The pipeline would cross Cook Inlet, passing within the boundaries of the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge, and both the pipeline and the access road would pass through Alaska Native lands, including those of the Bristol Bay Native Corporation and the Pedro Bay Corporation. Both corporations plan to oppose access to their land. The land route could destroy several thousand acres of wetlands, which would have been illegal under EPA’s 2014 plan that would have prohibited the loss of more than 1,100 acres of wetlands, lakes, or ponds that connect with salmon streams or tributaries.
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Midway through 2020, the fight is far from over. The overall permitting process is expected to take another three years and involve up to 40 federal, state, and local permits, with multiple opportunities for public participation. Then before the mine could begin operating, construction might take up to five years more.
The next step, however, is an Army Corps decision on the dredge and fill permit that follows the findings in the Final Environmental Impact Statement. Brian Litmans, legal director of Trustees for Alaska, a nonprofit public interest law firm, commented that the FEIS “is so lacking and thoroughly inadequate, I anticipate legal challenges.” Those who share the Litmans’ views of might consider submitting their own comments to EPA.
Update September 1, 2020: The situation remains fluid, but Roosevelt Republicans may have opened a door to stop Pebble Mine. In August, the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, a coalition of organizations supporting hunters and fishers, placed targeted ads opposing the Pebble Mine on the Fox network to get Trump’s attention. As the Washington Post reported, they succeeded in convincing Tucker Carlson to host an Alaska fish shop owner, who quoted Theodore Roosevelt in opposing the mine, while at the same time praising Donald Trump. Carlson came out against the Mine, as apparently Don Jr. did during White House discussions.
On August 23, the US Army Corps gave Pebble Mine owners 90 days to submit plans for “compensatory mitigation” of more wetland and stream acres than EPA’s Proposed Determination under Obama would have fully protected. This represents the Trump Administration’s latest flip/flop/backflip on the mine, but offers a ray of hope for conservationists (tempered by the observation that the 90-day deadline extends beyond November’s election, allowing for further reversals, whatever the outcome of the vote). If readers want another chance to express their opinions, they can add them to letters offered by Save Bristol Bay.
John Abbotts is a former Sightline research consultant. He occasionally submits material for Sightline articles.
Thanks to Jeannette Lee, who reviewed a draft of this article, and Jade Chan for editing.
I can give some updates, thanks in part to Headline items from Sightline. Responsibility for the following comments lies with myself alone.
First, in a human-bites-dog [fish bite humans?] story, none other than Tucker Carlson sponsored a fishing shop owner who quoted Theodore Roosevelt to make a Republican case against the Pebble Mine, see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=03eOq2OXu1A
Now, when I wondered about this, the Washington Post provided an explanation, at https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2020/08/24/energy-202-how-pebble-mine-opponents-used-fox-news-push-trump-delay-alaska-project/
Turns out this was the result of a campaign by the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, which ran ads against the mine on Fox to get Donald Trump’s attention.
As a result, the US Army Corps a few days ago sent Pebble Mine a letter directing the company within 90 days to submit a plan to mitigate impacts such as discharges into wetlands, waters and streams. The letter further noted that discharges from the mine would directly or indirectly affect 2,825 acres of wetlands, 132 acres of open waters and 129 miles of streams; and that discharges from its transportation corridor would impact 460 acres of wetlands, 232 acres of open waters and 55 miles of streams, details at https://thehill.com/policy/energy-environment/513366-army-corps-delays-pebble-mine-over-adverse-impacts-and-degradation.
Notably, both AK US Senators, including Dan Sullivan, running for re-election this November, voiced their support for the Corps letter.
Now, the heads of readers may be spinning on this latest flip-flop-double back flip by the Trump administration. But former Region 10 Administrator Dennis McLarren testified before Congress that in the Obama Administration’s scientific review, EPA scientists had determined that “compensatory remediation would not be effective in a pristine watershed [Bristol Bay].” He repeated this finding in an October 2019 US House Committee hearing delving into the Pebble Mine project, at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vqbuSx9RZ48
So, where are things going? Will Tucker Carlson and Roosevelt Republicans trump Trump’s instincts for corporate socialism? Will they trump Carlson’s own worst impulses, his concern for white North Americans profiting from red fish overcoming his lack of concern for POC such as Alaska Natives?
Significantly, 90 days from the August 23 Army Corps letter requiring a mitigation plan will extend beyond the November election, which could be highly complicated by Trump’s attempts to sabotage voting by mail.
As Rachel Maddow advises often, “Watch this space.”
A modest update, thanks in part to Sightline headlines. Responsibility for these comments lies solely with myself.
The situation remains very fluid. In a human-bites-dog [fish bites human?] situation, none other than Tucker Carlson hosted an Alaska fishing entrepreneur who quoted Theodore Roosevelt and opposed the Pebble Mine, view at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=03eOq2OXu1A
When I wondered about this, the Washington Post explained that the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership ran ads on Fox against Pebble Mine to get Trump’s attention, at https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2020/08/24/energy-202-how-pebble-mine-opponents-used-fox-news-push-trump-delay-alaska-project/
They were at least partially successful, because in late August, the Army Corps sent Pebble Mine a letter, directing them in late August to submit within 90 days plans to mitigate impacts such as discharges into wetlands, waters and streams. The letter further stated that discharges from the mine site would directly or indirectly affect 2,825 acres of wetlands, 132 acres of open waters and 129 miles of streams; and that discharges from its transportation corridor would impact 460 acres of wetlands, 231 acres of open waters and 55 miles of streams, details at https://thehill.com/policy/energy-environment/513366-army-corps-delays-pebble-mine-over-adverse-impacts-and-degradation
Notably, both Alaska US Senators, including Dan Sullivan, running for reelection this November.
If readers are confused by this flip-flop-double back flip on Pebble Mine, the “compensatory mitigation” the Corps directed may be useless. Dennis McLarren, EPA Region 10 administrator under Obama, has advised Congress that in EPA’s scientific assessment, agency scientists concluded that “compensatory mitigation would not be effective in a pristine [Bristol Bay] watershed,”
In addition, it may not have escaped readers’ notice that the 90 day deadline set by the Corps on August 23 extends beyond this November’s election. So depending on difficulties with the election (say, mail voting problems) or on the outcome, there may be room for another flip-flop on Pebble mine.
In the meantime, readers who want to express their own opinions on the mine can do so via this link from the Save Bristol Bay organization, at http://www.savebristolbay.org/take-action
Please note that the page offers citizens the opportunity to add their own comments, and has separate draft letters for Alaska residents, and those in Alaska and elsewhere. Also a caveat to readers, by signing, your name may become part of a public record on the mine.
Best wishes, and all stay safe, humans, salmon, and other species
A modest update, based on a Sightline headline today. The State of AK could block Pebble Mine by itself, but the window is closing on that opportunity for the state.
So the situation remains fluid, details at https://www.alaskapublic.org/2020/08/28/state-now-has-an-opportunity-to-veto-pebble-mine-pebble-foes-arent-getting-their-hopes-up/
Well, gee, the news hits on Pebble Mine keep coming faster than one can keep up, including a Sightline Daily news item. Nonetheless, I take sole responsibility for the material in this comment:
Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), one of the groups representing Bristol Bay plaintiffs, reported on its blog that Tom Collier, CEO of Pebble Mine, resigned in disgrace on September 24, 2020, after undercover videotapes showed him bragging about the Mine’s political influence over government officials, and admitting that the information the Mine presented in its permit application to the Army Corps was deceitful. Details, along with links to the tapes, at https://www.nrdc.org/experts/joel-reynolds/pebble-mine-self-destructs-ceo-resigns-permit-denial-urged
Another update, another set of tapes. The hits keep coming, reference another Sightline headlines article, this one from Outside magazine, at https://www.outsideonline.com/2418304/pebble-mine-tapes-election-explainer
For the record, the article gives an extensive summary consistent with the material described in Sightline’s information above. At the bottom of the Outside article is their own end of October update: “EIA [same organization that released tapes mentioned in the comment item above] released additional tapes and emails revealing the extent to which Northern Dynasty CEO Ron Thiessen” made more” outrageous statements. The additional tapes include, “Thiessen discussing his influence over Alaska’s senators and pro-Pebble governor, and an assertion that he believes the state of Alaska would contribute roughly $1.5 billion of taxpayer money to assist in building infrastructure for the mine.”
Below the Pebble article is another one on how a Trump administration Final Rule removes protections from the Tongass National Forest in AK.
“The move is being made despite overwhelming opposition from the general public and Native Americans who rely on the forest for food and clean water. It’s expected to decimate salmon populations and eliminate the largest carbon sink in the country, worsening the impacts of climate change. If that’s not bad enough, logging the Tongass requires massive financial support from taxpayers, resulting in a net loss to the government’s bottom line.”
The latest Sightline Daily headline on Pebble Mine reports that the US Army Corps of Engineers denied the dredge and fill permit that the Mine needed to start construction. The company developing the Mine promised to consider its options, such as an appeal. Mine opponents, including Senator Cantwell of WA, recommended that the Biden/Harris administration should establish permanent protection for the Bristol Bay fishery. Details at https://www.nytimes.com/2020/11/25/climate/pebble-mine-permit-denied.html
And another update for readers who are still following this story: Save Bristol Bay is offering another chance for citizens to add their names to two letters, each to Members of Congress asking them to “support permanent protections for the fish, people, and fish-based resources of Bristol Bay, Alaska.” One letter is addressed to Alaska’s Governor and members of the Alaska congressional delegation. The second is to members of Congress; and I expect that Save Bristol Bay might forward these to the representatives (one House member, two Senators) for individual signers, depending on the individual’s address. There are also options to sign up for future Action Alerts from the organization; and lower in the web page, to sign up for Updates on Bristol Bay. Link is http://www.savebristolbay.org/take-action. I hope somebody is still reading this deeply in the thread; and in any event, responsibility for this comment is mine alone.
Belated Happy New Year, Happy new Administration, and all stay safe,
So, another update via comment; and again, responsibility lies with myself alone. Pebble Mine has promised to appeal the Army Corps denial of a permit for dredge and fill. In the meantime, the mine’s owner has generated a new corporate presentation on the mine, justifying it as “Helping to Secure America’s Green Future.”
Now, I am reminded of several quotes, including Dave Barry’s, “I am not making this up.” Or Lily Tomlin’s Ernestine character, “no matter how cynical I get, I cannot keep up.”
More to the substance, in her groundbreaking book, “This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate,” Naomi Klein argued that to combat climate chaos and other environmental degradation, governments have to learn to say No to “extractive industries,” including mining. I confess I am paraphrasing, but the exact quote is left to the interested reader. Rather than ramble on about the corporate presentation, I can link to this commentary from Joel Reynolds, subject expert for NRDC, one of the organizations suing over Pebble, at https://www.nrdc.org/experts/joel-reynolds/pebble-mine-defeat-goes
Among other information, he reports that President Biden promised last summer that Bristol Bay was “no place for a mine.”
All stay safe,
An update on Tribes and salmon: During a random walk through the internet, I found this Youtube vid on Tyee salmon and cross-commonwealth collaboration. Summary, a NZ salmon fishery harvests the Tyee, identified which in the language of BC First Nations tribes, means “King” salmon, applied to salmon weighing 30 pounds or more. A bit off the topic of Bristol and sockeye salmon, but the Tyee amplifies the importance of salmon to both First/Native American culture, and an opportunity for economic development as well. The news item is from NZ public media, with windmills in the studio background, link at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DXZAyKP6A7A
I am tempted to remark on the AnZac “accents,” but I remembered that the UK invented English, which all Commonwealth Nations learned. Still, family relatives in Australia tell me that people in NZ talk funny [LOL]. OTOH, when I visited NZ, natives there told me the best thing about Australia is that it was 1000 miles away.
All stay safe,
Another update: On January 30, 2023, the Biden/Harris EPA formally issued a Final Determination on the Bristol Bay watershed, protecting the watershed from becoming a dumping ground for mine waste. Earthjustice, which represents multiple organizations fighting to protect the Bay, noted that these protections essentially make the Pebble Mine project unfeasible, although they expect industry to challenge EPA’s decision in the courts, link at https://earthjustice.org/news/press/2023/epa-issues-landmark-clean-water-act-decision-protecting-bristol-bay-watershed-from-pebble-mine