The plan for a large proposed gold and copper mine in Alaska’s Bristol Bay has changed to include a two-lane, 82-mile access road along the northern shore of Lake Iliamna, alarming environmental opponents who say they weren’t informed of the change until late in the permitting process.
David Hobbie, chief of the regulatory division for the Army Corps of Engineers’ Alaska district, told reporters on Friday that all alternatives have already been evaluated and put out for public comment. Thus, the new plan, which also includes a natural gas pipeline, won’t go out for more public comment, Hobbie said.
The owners of the planned Pebble Mine had included the road as a possible alternative in earlier filings with the government. Tom Collier, chief executive officer of the Pebble Partnership, said he didn’t consider it to be a new plan.
But some of the opponents of the Pebble Mine say they were never told about the changed plans, and therefore never got a chance to comment on them. They said the move could prompt litigation.
The proposed changes surfaced in a memo that was part of a Freedom of Information Act request filed by the Natural Resources Defense Council, and was confirmed in a press call with the Corps on Friday.
The plan hasn’t been approved yet. The Corps has said it will issue an environmental impact statement by the middle of the year, with a final decision to follow shortly thereafter. The Army Corps of Engineers is the lead federal agency involved in permitting for the mine.
The mine would be located in the watershed of Bristol Bay, home of the world’s most productive wild salmon fishery. It has been at the center of a years-long tug of war over its environmental impacts, especially on the wild salmon.
Hobbie said the decision to switch to the new plan was made after the Corps presented Pebble with its preliminary findings of what practicable alternative would be least environmentally damaging.
Mike Heatwole, a Pebble Limited Partnership spokesman, said the company didn’t make the request for the new plan. Rather, “it is a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers decision as they work to conclude the National Environmental Policy Act/environmental impact statement process.”
The Pebble Mine is owned by Northern Dynasty Minerals Ltd., which wants to tap a $100 billion gold deposit in the region.
‘A Huge Bait and Switch’
Some mine opponents flatly denied the Corps’ statement that the new plan has already been thoroughly vetted.
“This is a huge bait and switch, after Pebble has spent years trying to convince people of the viability of its Southern Route, which it said it chose in response to feedback from the region,” said Taryn Kiekow Heimer, a senior policy advocate at the NRDC.
Kiekow Heimer was referring to the old plan, which would have involved transporting the minerals from the mine across Lake Iliamna on a ferry, to a different port. An ice-breaking ferry would also be used so the lake could be crossed year-round. Several miles of additional roads would also have to be built under the old plan.
The ferry would carry supplies to the mine and return with copper-gold and molybdenum concentrates, backhauled waste, and empty shipping containers. An average of one round trip would be required per day.
More Comments on Old Plan
The bulk of the public comment has focused on the old plan “because that is the one the applicant had decided to pursue,” said Joel Reynolds, a senior attorney with NRDC. The impacts of the new plan “haven’t been considered in any serious way,” he said.
“At a point when we are past any further public input, when we’re past even the opportunity for cooperating agencies to submit further written comments, we have another significant permutation of the project,” said Daniel Cheyette, vice president of lands and resources at the Bristol Bay Native Corp., which represents native shareholders in the region.
“And that will be completely free of public review and expert comments,” Cheyette said.
Pebble has repeatedly said the mine will be done in an environmentally safe way that won’t harm the fishery and will also create jobs in Alaska.
In response to Reynolds’ remarks, Collier said, “I suspect he might agree that it is tantamount to malpractice to advise your client that it should only comment on the preferred alternative and not comment on the other alternatives during an environmental impact statement process.”
The new plan was disclosed as Pebble’s new “preferred alternative” in a memo from Los Angeles-based engineering company AECOM, which the Army Corps of Engineers hired in 2018 to draft an environmental impact statement for the mine.
The memo was dated April 24, but only recently became available.
If the new plan is approved without adequate public input, that could spark a legal challenge under the National Environmental Policy Act, Cheyette said.
A court could find that the permitting process was deficient for failing to get public comment upfront, and order it to be redone, Reynolds, from the NRDC, said.
The purpose of the EIS process is to gather the necessary information to let the Army Corps select the least environmentally damaging practicable alternative from the various alternatives, Collier said.
The plan now under consideration “was on the table from the get-go; it is not a ‘new’ plan,” Collier said.
Moreover, the the reason it was selected “is because of the vicious criticisms aimed at the ferry route by NRDC and other project opponents,” he said.
“Frankly, comments from opponents like the NRDC drove the Army Corps to select an alternative to the ferry route,” he said. “If there was a bait and switch here, project opponents put the bait on the table that caused the switch.”