Feds Put Brakes on Mine Planned for Pristine Alaska Bay

The Nushagak River, draining into Bristol Bay in Alaska. (AlaskaTrekker via Wikipedia)

(CN) — Proponents of the Pebble Mine in Alaska’s pristine Bristol Bay hit an unexpected snag Monday, after the Trump administration initially greenlighted a project locals say would have disastrous consequences for the healthiest, most fecund runs of wild sockeye salmon remaining in the world.

Plans for the massive proposed Pebble Mine would include toxic storage ponds at the headwaters for the whole of the Bristol Bay watershed, imperiling salmon and all the creatures who depend on them. The mine, which would extract copper, gold and other minerals, would be the largest of its kind in North America. And the proposed route for minerals exiting the mine would also violate the sovereignty of several native tribes who refuse access to the company behind the project. The people of the Yup’ik, Dena’ina, and Alutiiq peoples depend on Bristol Bay salmon runs for their survival, as they have for millennia.

Pebble Mine, the Canadian-owned company has continued to push the project despite over a decade of fierce opposition from indigenous groups, environmentalists and the powerful Alaskan fishing industry. It appeared to be on the cusp of a win in July, when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers released its Final Environmental Impact Statement green-lighting the project. Opponents blasted the document, saying the Corps ignored scientific consensus to find that the project would have “no measurable impact” on the Bristol Bay watershed.

Now, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers says harmful impacts to the watershed around the proposed mine are “unavoidable.” But it’s not calling for an end to the project. Instead, the Corps says Pebble Mine must provide “in-kind compensatory mitigation” for expected despoliation of 3,285 acres of wetlands, 364 acres of open waters and 185 miles of streams, according to a letter issued today.

That means the company can still pollute the wetlands and waterways of Bristol Bay, as long as it figures out how to replace their core functions, like incubating the eggs of what may be the most important salmon run in the world. It has 90 days to submit its proposal.

Tom Collier, chief executive officer for Pebble, called the development a “normal letter in the permitting process.”

“We believe our final comprehensive management plan submission will be submitted within weeks and will satisfy all of the requirements of the letter,” Collier said in a statement.

But the new requirement is a major improvement over the company’s original plan, according to Brian Litmans, legal director for trustees for Alaska, who called the Pebble’s first mitigation proposal “a joke.” Originally, the company offered to fix culverts hundreds of miles away and give money to indigenous villages for wastewater treatment plants. None of that would have fixed the problems the mine created, Litmans said.

“All the science indicates that this project would be devastating for Bristol Bay,” Litmans said. “It doesn’t help Bristol Bay or the salmon to go preserve some wetlands hundreds of miles away.”

The mine, which will be the largest of its kind in North America, also comes with the danger that the pits containing its toxic waste could fail, spilling poison 100 miles downriver to the bay and out to sea.

“That would be truly disastrous for Bristol Bay,” Litmans said.

Activists involved in the decade-plus fight against the Pebble Mine say political pressure from within the Trump administration was the likely prompt for slowing a project that appeared to be full-steam ahead.

On Aug. 4, Nick Ayers, former aide to Vice President Mike Pence, tweeted his call for the president’s son, Donald Trump Jr., to oppose Pebble Mine. An hour later, Trump Jr. complied.

That launched a cascade of conservatives lending their support to the movement to stop the mine, in advance of today’s surprise letter. But Collier dismissed the narrative that the letter is the culmination of rare agreement among all political factions.

“A clear reading of the letter shows it is entirely unrelated to recent tweets about Pebble and one-sided news shows,” Collier said. “The White House had nothing to do with the letter nor is it the show-stopper described by several in the news media over the weekend.”

The Corps says it will use the company’s proposed mitigation plan to develop its Record of Decision, which will memorialize the agency’s final decision on whether to allow the project to proceed. That’s also the point at which groups opposing the project can sue to stop it – which happened today in another Alaskan mega-project.

Indigenous Alaskan groups led by the Gwich’in Steering Committee today sued Interior Secretary David Bernhardt and the Bureau of Land Management over their Aug. 17 Record of Decision allowing drilling in the Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge.

The National Audubon Society, Center for Biological Diversity, Natural Resources Defense Council and Friends of the Earth filed a second lawsuit Monday over the same issue and against the same defendants.

“Birds can’t vote, and they can’t file a lawsuit — but we can,” David Yarnold, president and CEO of the National Audubon Society, said in a statement. “This is an all-hands-on-deck moment to defend the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and protect America’s bird nursery from drilling.”

The decision, which would open the entire 1.5 million acre coastal plain of the refuge for oil and gas leasing, would imperil the caribou herds indigenous peoples depend on for survival. The coastal plain is also home to dens for countless wolves and polar bears. But the Bureau of Land Management ignored the science and didn’t take indigenous input seriously, according to the lawsuit.

“BLM’s decision to violate lands sacred to my people and essential to the health of the Porcupine caribou herd is an attack on our rights, our culture and our way of life,” said Bernadette Demientieff, executive director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee. “We have lived and thrived in the Arctic for thousands of years. We have listened and learned from our elders, and we know we must stand united to protect future generations, and that means going to court to protect the caribou herd and sacred lands.”

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