Editor’s Note: See the bottom of this article for an important update on September 1, 2020.
Editor’s Note: 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 Jeanette Lee, who reviewed a draft of this article, and Jade Chan for editing.