Opponents buoyed, supporters unperturbed after Corps says Pebble can't be permitted as proposed

Aug 25, 2020

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers says in a letter to the Pebble Limited Partnership that the company has to provide a new mitigation plan to receive a federal permit.

 

The Koktuli River in the Bristol Bay watershed. May 2007.
Credit Todd Radenbaugh/Flickr Creative Commons

 

 

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has told Pebble Limited Partnership that it must provide new mitigation measures to receive a federal permit. 

While the Corps’ request is not an outright rejection of the project, the news buoyed opponents of the mine. But Pebble and its supporters say they’re unperturbed.

The news from the Army Corps came in a letter made public Monday. It outlined the conditions the mine project needs to meet to receive a permit, that is, in-kind compensatory mitigation within the Koktuli River watershed to offset the mine’s damage to the wetlands there. That's a departure from Pebble's initial mitigation plan.

 

The proposed mine site is at the headwaters of the Koktuli River. The Army Corps says that impacts at the mine site total more than 2,800 acres of wetlands, 130 acres of open water, and almost 130 miles of streams. 

 

Pebble originally proposed to offset that damage through repairs to sewer systems in three villages near the mine site, among other infrastructure projects in the region. The Clean Water Act requires projects that will damage wetlands to offset those losses by improving other habitat, for example through restoration or protection. Pebble's out-of-kind mitigation plan was put forth in an effort to meet those requirements, since the region's wetlands are almost untouched and wouldn't need restoration.

 

But in its letter, the Army Corps says that the company has to mitigate the mine’s damages to aquatic resources by improving other parts of the Koktuli. It also requires Pebble to provide a mitigation plan for the transportation route and the port site. 

 

Alannah Hurley testifying at a hearing in Dillingham on the Army Corps' draft environmental review. April 2019.
Credit Izzy Ross/KDLG

Alannah Hurley has been fighting against Pebble since 2004. Now, she’s the executive director of the United Tribes of Bristol Bay. She says the Army Corps’ assessment of the project is huge news.

“There is no way for them to mitigate their way out of the devastating impacts of this project — it is impossible. And so we are hopeful that the final agency action, the final permit decision, will reflect that,” she says.

The U.S. Army, the umbrella agency for the Army Corps of Engineers, said in an official release Monday that the mine cannot be permitted as proposed. 

Alaska Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan issued statements echoing that stance. It’s the most definitive either has been on the project. Murkowski wrote that she agrees that “a permit should not be issued,” and Sullivan said Pebble has not passed the bar to develop the project safely in the important aquatic system. 

The Army Corps released its final environmental review of the project last month, in which it said that the project would not have substantial impacts on Bristol Bay’s fish populations. August 24 was the soonest it could have released a record of decision for a federal permit of the mine. 

While this is not a final permit decision, Hurley says, it shows that the Army Corps is lining up with organizations that have protested the mine because of its potential impacts on the region. 

“And it is clear that it’s impossible for Pebble to be able to mitigate those impacts. Especially for Native people. You cannot mitigate devastating impacts to our traditional way of life that has thrived here for thousands of years,” she says.

But Pebble says the Army Corps’ request is a normal part of the permitting process, and is “entirely unrelated” to the recent statements from conservative political and media figures opposing the project, including the president’s son, Donald Trump, Jr., Fox News host Tucker Carlson, and Nick Ayers, the former chief of staff to Vice President Mike Pence.

Pebble said in a news release Monday that the company is currently involved in “an effort to present a mitigation plan to the USACE that complies with the requirements of this letter.” It also says that this is the Army Corps’ first formal request for mitigation to the project’s wetlands impacts.

Lisa Reimers testifies at a public hearing in Newhalen on the Army Corps' draft environmental review of Pebble. March 2019.
Credit Izzy Ross/KDLG

Lisa Reimers is a board member of Iliamna Natives Limited and the CEO of Iliamna Development Corporation. Iliamna is one of the communities closest to the project. Reimers supports the project, and she says the Army Corps’ request for more information doesn’t surprise her. That’s because the Corps recently determined that the least environmentally damaging transportation corridor for minerals and other materials was the so-called northern route — a road along the shore of Lake Iliamna. 

“I think it’s just, they have to go into more mitigation. That’s what I believe,” she says. “Figure out what they need to get to the Army Corps to continue with getting them the information to get a [Record of Decision]. So I don’t think it’s the end of the story for Pebble, like everybody wants to believe it is.”

The Bristol Bay Native Corporation opposes the project. CEO and President Jason Metrokin says they are celebrating the news. 

“Not only does the project not pencil out monetarily, but it doesn’t justify the permit in the eyes of the region, BBNC, and now the Corps,” he says. 

But, despite the developments in the regulatory discussion surrounding the project, Metrokin isn’t holding his breath for the end of the permitting process.  

“The deposit remains in the ground. And until such a time when there’s a different path, or there’s a different determination for the land ownership structure — this is still on state land, so the state has a big say in this," he says. "I just feel that we’re going to celebrate the news of today, we’re going to continue to advocate on behalf of the region, both the proper protection of our lands and resources, but at the same time, the proper development of our lands and resources.” 

The Army Corps says Pebble has 90 days to submit a mitigation plan to meet its requests. Pebble says it will release the plan in a matter of weeks.

Contact the author at isabelle@kdlg.org or 907-842-2200.