The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has published a Final Environmental Impact Statement, or EIS, for the proposed Pebble Mine southwest of Anchorage.
Dave Hobbie, chief of the Army Corp’s Alaska regulatory division, told reporters “The Final EIS will be published in the Federal Register on Friday, July 24, 2020. We will also post the Final EIS on our website (www.pebbleprojecteis.com) as soon as it is made publicly available.”
“It is critical for folks to understand is that the Final EIS is not a permit decision. It will be used by the Corps to inform the final step in the review process which is the record of decision,” or ROD.
“By regulation, the ROD cannot be finalized for at least 30 days from the publishing of the Final EIS. We anticipate the ROD to be finalized later this year,” Hobbie said.
Pebble is very controversial with tribal and community groups in the Bristol Bay region and the corps’ final EIS comes just after opponents to the mine have raised fresh concerns about seismic hazards and safety of the tailings impoundment dams for the project.
In a letter sent to the corps June 25 five Bristol Bay groups said Pebble relied on obsolete seismic studies in its application to the corps and that its dam safety stability analysis understates risks.
Two experts in geotechnical engineering, Dr. Thomas O’Rourke of Cornell University and Dr. Izzat Idriss, of UC Davis, analyzed information in the Draft EIS for Pebble and identified gaps in information. Following the review by O’Rourke and Idriss, Pebble opponents retained other experts to conduct further studies.
“Because of this deficient evaluation, it was, and is, clear that the failure to adequately consider seismic hazards and potential failure of the tailing storage facility (dam) constitutes a glaring analytical gap in the DEIS (draft environmental impact study) for the proposed pebble mine,” the groups’ June 25 letter said.
The findings constitute enough new information to justify the corps in conducting a new EIS just as it has finishes its current one.
However, the main purpose of the Army corps’ review is for an assessment, under the Clean Water Act’s Section 404, of environmental impacts of Pebble on wetlands and streams. A focused review of safety of the tailings dams comes separately under the state of Alaska’s large dam safety permit, which the state issues under federal guidelines Pebble has not yet filed for its state permits, which will include the dam safety approval.
Pebble Partnership CEO Tom Collier is upbeat about the project. “We have reason to believe that Pebble will be judged to be a project of merit, and will receive its key federal permits this summer,” he said in a statement. “The next steps facing the company and the project will be to secure a major funding partner and acquire the state permits necessary to take Pebble into production.”
State permitting for Pebble, which will mainly focus on the dam safety permit, is expected to take two to three years to complete, Collier said. This will be followed by a four-year construction phase. Once operating, Pebble will be among the leading metals producers in the U.S.
As described in the Project Description each year during 20 years of production the proposed Pebble mine would produce mineral concentrates containing, on average:
• 318 million pounds of copper;
• 362,000 ounce of gold;
• 14 million pounds of molybdenum; and
• 1.8 million ounces of silver.
Collier said Pebble has the potential to be the third largest copper producer in the United States and producing about 12 percent of U.S. output, and the fourth largest gold producer, producing about 6 percent of U.S. gold output.
Pebble’s ore also contains rhenium, a relatively rare element used in jet engines and high-octane fuels, and palladium, a precious metal employed in fuel cells and catalytic convertors, among other applications.
Depending on prevailing market prices, about 60 percent and 30 percent of the annual value of production at Pebble will be derived from copper and gold respectively, with the balance coming from other metals.
“There’s absolutely no doubt there is growing domestic and international market demand for the metal commodities Pebble will produce,” Collier said. There is growing demand for copper to facilitate the global transition to a low carbon future and increasing demand for gold in the current economic climate as well as other strategic metals Pebble will produce, he said.
America’s transition away from fossil fuels and toward clean and renewable sources of power will be particularly copper-intensive, as will the requirement for smart grid technology to make the nation’s energy transmission and distribution system more efficient.
Electric and hybrid-electric cars, solar and wind power installations, as well as the energy infrastructure required to enable these technologies, will all require substantially more copper than the transportation and energy systems they replace.
The US currently imports 35 percent of its annual copper needs from foreign producers, as well as 82 percent of its rhenium, 68 percent of its silver and 32 percent of its palladium. For copper and many other strategic metals, America’s import reliance is expected to grow in future as domestic demand rises faster than supply, Collier said.
“It is in the United States’ best interest to develop reliable and long-term domestic sources of mineral commodities like copper, gold, molybdenum, silver, rhenium and palladium – strategic metals that are critical to the country’s economic, energy, military and industrial future,” Collier said.
It is equally important to source these minerals from jurisdictions that are known to be leaders in environmental protection, in conserving healthy fish and wildlife populations, he said.