Pebble Mine

Landscape near Iliamna where Pebble Mine would be built.

The fur is flying once again over Pebble, the highly controversial mining project near Lake Iliamna, southwest of Anchorage.

Pebble is a large mineral deposit southwest of Anchorage and 18 miles north of Iliamna. It is one of the world’s largest undeveloped copper, gold and molybdenum deposits. If developed if would employ 3,000 in construction and over 800 in production, providing a much-needed economic lift for the state and small communities in the economically-depressed Lake and Peninsula Borough, in which Pebble is located.

The proposal is extremely controversial, however. Pebble’s location in uplands above critical watersheds for salmon-bearing streams could result in damage to rich salmon fisheries if there is leakage and contamination from the mine.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers released its final environmental review on the big project July 24, which sets the stage for a federal Record of Decision and permits for the mine which could come in 30 days.

Critics say the analysis, in a Final Environmental Impact Statement, or FEIS, was rushed to meet a Trump administration goal to shorten the time spent on permits for major development projects like mines.

Pebble opponents pulled no punches: “The release of such an inexcusable final assessment demonstrates the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Pebble Limited Partnership are working hand in hand to push this toxic project forward, despite overwhelming local and national opposition,” said Ralph Anderson, head of Bristol Bay Native Association, said in a statement.

The compressed, two-year schedule of the environmental review is a key issue. “This EIS is a time-driven document. A time-driven process does not allow for science-based analysis. It only allows for as much science as can be done in the time allowed, said Dave Chambers, a scientist with the Center for Science in Public Participation.

“The environmental impact statement as envisioned by the National Environmental Policy Act was supposed to be a data-driven process, with science identifying the risks and mitigation measures for those risks. A time-driven process does not allow for science-based analysis. It only allows for as much science as can be done in the time allowed,” Chambers said.

It also explains what is felt to be a poor analysis by the corps of the mine’s tailings dam design and issues like seismic stability, dam foundation geotechnical analysis and evaluation of long-term risks of failures, he said.

Chambers’ background is in geophysics and he has worked previously in mining exploration and development.

Cameron Wobus, Senior Scientist at Lynker Technologies, an environmental consulting firm, said Pebble will become a huge water and waste management challenge that will need to be actively managed in perpetuity.”

“Even the ‘small’ mine they’re seeking to permit (Pebble’s current plan is downsized from the original proposal) will still create huge amounts of toxic waste that will need to be kept segregated forever from everything that flows downstream, in a place where water is literally everywhere,” Wobus said.

“Add to that the fact that the Pebble deposit is in a seismically active part of the U.S. and half of the world’s wild sockeye comes from those rivers downstream, and what that means is that the margin for error for this mine is incredibly low, which means the bar that should be set for this EIS should be incredibly high.”

Pebble Ltd. Partnership, the mine developer, defended the rigor of the Corps of Engineers’ analysis of the company’s proposal. Several years of work on conceptual engineering and environmental studies have been gone into the company’s application to the corps for permits, which was what was reviewed in the environmental impact statement.

While the Army corps is the lead federal regulator for the Pebble EIS process, much of the work on the document was done by AECOM, the third party contractor selected by the corps in early 2018 to prepare the EIS. AECOM is a engineering, environmental, construction and infrastructure firm with a history of providing regulatory compliance and other services associated with the development of large, complex development projects in Alaska and the U.S.

To date Pebble has spent over $850 million and more investment will be needed in engineering and geotechnical work after the company files for its state of Alaska permits. The state permits include a large dam safety permit that will be issued under federal guidelines.

In a statement, Pebble Partnership CEO Tom Collier said the Army Corps review was, “extensive, rigorous, and transparent. This is the same federal review process that has brought Alaskans decades of North Slope development and a host of other resource development projects that were resisted every step of the way by opponents of responsibly developing Alaska’s resources that now provide jobs and economic activity for thousands of Alaskans.”

Pebble officials point to statements in the FEIS document that, while they will be challenged, do reflect that the issues have been examined:

“Potential cumulative impacts to commercial fisheries could be affected by productivity losses, including incremental loss of spawning and rearing habitat, fragmentation of habitat, changes in wetland types, and loss or degradation of ecosystem functions,” the FEIS said in its analysis of impacts fisheries.

However, the analysis goes on to say: “Impacts to Bristol Bay salmon are not expected to be measurable and given the vast breadth and diversity of habitat (and salmon populations) in the Bristol Bay watershed, impacts are certain but not likely to be noticeable in context of the Bristol Bay watershed. No long-term measurable changes in the number of returning salmon are expected, nor is genetic diversity expected to change,” the FEIS said.

Since lawsuits are expected, the validity of those statements will ultimately be decided on by judges.

History also shows, however, that commercial fisheries and development projects do coexist. In its executive summary, of the corps said: “Other salmon fisheries in Alaska exist in conjunction with non-renewable resource extraction industries. For example, the Cook Inlet salmon fisheries exist in an active oil and gas basin and have developed headwaters of Anchorage and the Matanuska-Susitna areas. The Copper River salmon fishery occurs in a watershed with the remains of the historic Kennecott Copper Mine and the Trans Alaska Pipeline System in the headwaters of portions of the fishery. Both fisheries average higher prices per pound than the Bristol Bay Salmon Fishery.”

Pebble has a complicated history. The deposit is on state land acquired by the state in 1974 by way of a three-way land swap with the state, the federal government and Cook Inlet Region, Inc. The initial discovery of the Pebble deposit was made in 1988 by Cominco Alaska, a division of Cominco Ltd. Cominco discontinued work on potential development of the Pebble in 1997 and in 2001 the state mining claims at Pebble were optioned to Northern Dynasty Minerals Ltd. In 2005, Northern Dynasty exercised its option to acquire the Pebble deposit and in the same year discovered a significant, higher-grade eastern extension to the deposit. Over the next seven years, knowledge of the size of the Pebble deposit was expanded through exploratory drilling.

In 2007, Northern Dynasty formed Pebble Ltd. Partnership with another company, Anglo America, and placed the deposit into the partnership. Over the next six years, PLP continued to advance exploratory drilling of the deposit through additional drilling, environmental data collection, and engineering studies. When Anglo withdrew from the project PLP reverted to a wholly=owned subsidiary of Northern Dynasty, Ltd.

It isn’t just Pebble that worries opponents. There are likely to be more deposits like Pebble discovered in the region and once infrastructure is built to support Pebble other mines will follow. Several mineralized areas that could be new Pebbles are already known, with names like Big Chunk, Fog Lake, Groundhog and Shotgun. There is also a likely expansion of the Pebble Project itself.

The project currently planned will tap only part of the known ore deposit.

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