Key players discuss Pebble Mine’s size and safety at Alaska Forum on the Environment

Feb 12, 2019

Thomas Collier, the CEO of the Pebble Partnership joined Sheila Newman of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and former state senator and longtime Pebble opponent Rick Halford for a panel discussion on the proposed mine in Bristol Bay.

A panel on the proposed Pebble Mine was the keynote event for the Alaska Forum on the Environment in Anchorage.
Credit Anne Hillman/ Alaska Public Media

Three key players in the Pebble debate met Monday for a public discussion on the future of the proposed controversial mine in Bristol Bay. It was a rare chance to hear different perspectives on the project during one event. The discussion was the keynote at the Alaska Forum on the Environment in Anchorage.

Thomas Collier, the CEO of the Pebble Partnership joined Sheila Newman of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and former state senator and longtime Pebble opponent Rick Halford for the panel, and Maria Downey of KTUU moderated.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is scheduled to release the draft Environmental Impact Statement for the Pebble project on Feb. 22. A public comment period will begin March 1.

The draft EIS will analyze potential effects of the Pebble Project and develop alternatives to the proposed mine plan. The final EIS will serve as a tool for federal agencies as they decide whether or not to permit the copper, gold and molybdenum mine in Bristol Bay.

Downey explained that the panel aimed to help the audience formulate more effective comments on the draft EIS.

“Basically what we want to get across today is, no matter how you feel about the issue, go beyond what you heard today,” she said. “The EIS is coming out. Take a look at it. Make your own informed decisions because an informed Alaskan is a better decision-maker.”

Representing opposition to the mine, Halford raised several concerns. Among them, he believes the tailings pit lake that would form in the excavated area of the deposit after mining operations are complete would pose a grave risk to Bristol Bay’s water quality.

“It’s got arsenic, cadmium,” said Halford. “All the things that were left on the pit walls are now poisoning the water. So it’s a lake of poison that backfeeds all the drainages that it drew out of, and those are undefined. The environmental baseline data talks about the geology of the area and how porous it is, how there’s exchange between groundwater and surface water.”

Halford is skeptical that the proposed mine is economically viable and thinks it’s likely that, if permitted, Pebble will later attempt to expand the operation. He also asked the Army Corps to consider lengthening the public comment period to at least six months.

Pebble CEO Tom Collier emphasized that environmental safety is a top priority for Pebble.

“When we talk about connectivity of water, we have spent $150 million understanding the hydrology of this area. We know it well, and we know it very carefully. And we are confident that the hydrology of the area will not allow any impact on Upper Talarik Creek. Notwithstanding the fact that there is a hydrological connection there at one point,” said Collier.

He pointed out that the proposed mine is smaller than initially planned and that if Pebble were to expand project, it would need to go through an additional permitting process.

Sheila Newman is the regulatory division deputy chief with the Army Corps’ Alaska District. She encouraged people who want to comment on the draft EIS to familiarize themselves with USACE’s website for the Pebble EIS process.

“All of the information here is everything that we, the Corps of Engineers, has looked at in the review of this draft Environmental Impact Statement,” said Newman. “So if we’ve received it and used it in the review, it’s already on that site and has been for months and months and months. The applicant’s permit application has been on that website for over a year for folks to take a look at it.”

During the 90-day comment period, people can submit comments online, by mail or in-person at meetings the Army Corps plans to hold. The agency estimates it will release the final EIS in early 2020.

Alaska Public Media’s Anne Hillman contributed to this story.