By Larry Forte
Up until recently, I assumed that the proposed Pebble Mine in Bristol Bay, Alaska, was a dead issue and that the mine had very little chance of actually being approved. Wow… was I wrong. Not only is Pebble Mine still a possibility, but it is actually gaining momentum!
A QUICK OVERVEIW: Since the late 1980’s several mining companies have been trying to build one of the world’s largest gold and copper mines near the head waters of Bristol Bay; specifically, the head waters of the Kvichak and Nushagak Rivers. Bristol Bay supports the world’s largest salmon run and last year it was estimated that over 62 million Salmon migrated to its headwaters.
The Pebble Limited Partnership, a subsidiary of Northern Dynasty based in Canada, recently applied for their first permits with the Army Corp of Engineers. The proposed gold and copper mine calls for extracting 1.4 billion tons of ore and 200 million tons of waste rock over 20 years. Plus, it will include building a 600 foot tall tailings dam and a 188 mile natural gas pipe line. The dam would be for holding ground waste material and wastewater. One of the major concerns is that any accidental release from the tailings dam would devastate the watershed and destroy the region and the pristine environment. Add to the equation that the region is situated in a seismic rich area – prone to earthquakes, and you are just asking for trouble.
During the last couple years of the Obama Administration, the EPA added restrictions to the Clean Water Act. Basically this would make it more difficult for a situation like Pebble Mine to get off the ground. While the proposed mine would be on Alaskan state land, which allows mining, because of the Clean Water Act, the Federal Government has the final say. These additional restrictions, known as 404(c) made the possibility of the new mine a very slim possibility. By the end of the Obama Administration, Pebble Mine was on life support as several major investors that partnered with the Pebble Limited Partnership, pulled out of the proposed project.
The mining company felt strongly that these new restrictions would make it impossible for them to build their mine. So in response, The Pebble Limited Partnership sued the EPA over these new restrictions.
Fast forward to the Trump Administration and former EPA Director, Scott Pruitt. After the Trump election, Mr. Pruitt and the owners of the Pebble Limited Partnership met to resolve their differences. The mining company asked that the new 404(c) restrictions be eliminated. While the EPA did not agree to that directly, initially Mr. Pruitt supported this move, the 2 organizations settled their legal dispute, thus allowing Pebble Limited Partnership to start the permitting process, which they did early last year.
Now, the permitting process is in the hands for the Army Corp of Engineers. Last month, the agency released a 1,400 page Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) for review. This will be open for public comment for the next 90 days. New EPA guidelines calls for a more streamlined review process. This 90 day process normally calls for a 270 day review process for a DEIS. Why the rush to comment on the study? This can only benefit the mining interest to keep this on a fast track.
The agency is expected to release its final report and decision in 2020. While other State and Federal agencies will weigh in, the EPA will have the final option to veto the report.
The mining company claims that the mine will create 2,000 new jobs and provide $1 billion in state revenue and $21 million annually to the region’s economy.
However, at risk are the 14,000 fisherman who depend on Bristol Bay’s salmon for jobs, which is valued at more than $1.5 billion annually.
Plus, how do you value the World’s largest Salmon breeding grounds?
While it’s good news that the EPA will have final veto power on the project, there are other issues to be concerned about that could impact the final decision. For example, the new Republican Governor of Alaska favors the mine and has ties to the mine owners. Since Mr. Pruitt left the EPA, a new replacement has not been found. Who knows what a new Director’s views will be concerning the proposed mine. The current acting EPA Director comes from a mining background. You add to the mix a pro mining climate in the state and you never know what the outcome could be.
On the other hand, the Pebble Limited Partnership can’t seem to keep investors. In December of 2017, First Quantum Minerals Ltd agreed to invest $150 million over 3 years in the project for a 50% stake in the mine. Yet, in May of 2018, they withdrew their pledge and walked away from $37.5 million that was already provided. The reason: They were not optimistic that the mine would ever become a reality. Since 2011, 4 major investors have walked away from the project.
I have never been to Bristol Bay but its sounds like a magical place. Beautiful, unspoiled, pristine…. The way it has always been. Plus, the fact that it supports the world’s largest migration of salmon, to me, Bristol Bay is a vital asset that needs to be saved and preserved for future generations. There is too much at risk to allow mining in the Bristol Bay headwaters. If you asked me 3 years ago if I thought the Pebble Mine would ever be a reality – my answer would have been no. Today, I am not so sure, which scares me.
If you would like to learn more about the proposed Pebble Mine and how you can help prevent the mine from becoming a reality, here are a couple of websites for you to look at.
As a final comment about this issue, I want to point out that we are jeopardizing an amazing area in Alaska for a company that is based in Canada. A bit of irony there!
Thanks for reading this issue of “Streamlines”.
I hope to see you at the Casting Clinic or at one of our upcoming Fly Tying Classes.