For over ten years, the battle between sportsmen and the Pebble Mine project, a proposal for the world’s largest open-pit mine intended for the headwaters of Bristol Bay, has been underway. Many thought the project had been defeated in 2014, but make no mistake, Pebble Mine is still very alive.
Many of you have asked us about the Pebble Mine of late, so we reached out to Sportsman’s Alliance of Alaska director, Scott Hed, to give us the current status of the project, what it means for Bristol Bay, and how you can get involved.
Take it away, Scott!
Salmon Returns Worth Protecting
2018 was a very odd season for salmon runs around the State of Alaska. In most places, the returns were down and below projections. Fisheries professionals will be studying the data to attempt to determine the cause of the low returns. But, in a year of disappointment in many other locales, Bristol Bay experienced record numbers of sockeye returning to its river systems – showcasing all the more reason that this one-of-a-kind resource must be protected.
Per AK Department of Fish & Game preliminary data, the total run of 62.3 million sockeye was the highest on record dating back to 1893, and was 69% above the 20-year average of 36.9 million fish. The commercial harvest of 41.3 million fish was the second-largest on record, and the Bay-wide escapement total was 21 million fish with all districts meeting or exceeding their escapement targets. Record returns were set in the Nushagak and Togiak districts, with the Nushagak total run being a remarkable 33.6 million fish. 24 million sockeye were harvested in the Nushagak district, setting an all-time record for any Bristol Bay district. The return for the Naknek-Kvichak district was also strong, at 16.8 million fish.
Threat to the Fishery
The Bristol Bay fishery is widely regarded as one of the planet’s most-productive and well-managed, with the ability to support three user groups (subsistence, commercial, and sport fishing), an estimated 14,000 jobs, and an estimated $1.5 billion annual contribution to the US economy. It’s a biological and economic powerhouse. It’s also ground zero for one of Alaska’s and freshwater fishing’s most important conservation battles, one you’ve surely heard of, the proposed Pebble Mine.
The Pebble Mine has been in the collective awareness of the fly fishing community for over 10 years now. Many people thought that the fight had been won back in 2014, when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed a set of common-sense Clean Water Act restrictions on the disposal of mine waste in the watersheds of the Nushagak and Kvichak Rivers. This, of course, did not sit well with Northern Dynasty Minerals, the small Vancouver-based junior mining company behind Pebble (a “mining” company that has never mined a thing except the stock market – and poorly at that, as their shares have gone from $21/share in 2011 to around $0.50/share today), and the company sued the EPA.
Before the proposed restrictions could be finalized, the lawsuit had dragged on long enough that the 2016 elections delivered a surprise. With President Trump in the White House, Pebble’s fortunes caught a tailwind. New leadership at EPA met with Northern Dynasty’s CEO and soon settled the outstanding lawsuit with Northern Dynasty, and after a over a decade of hearing “We’ll apply for permits next year,” well, “next year” actually happened, as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers accepted a permit application for the proposed Pebble Mine in December 2017. In a very transparent attempt to gain a foothold in the region, Pebble submitted plans for a smaller mine than they had discussed previously – and smaller than they continue to tout when they are seeking new investors (a total “camel’s nose under the tent” approach). Once that permit process began, Pebble became more than a hypothetical threat. The threat is now very real and it is GAME ON. A few of the significant pieces of the proposal include:
- A natural gas pipeline nearly 190 miles in length. From the Kenai Peninsula to a new deep-water port on the west side of Cook Inlet (very near the world-famous McNeil River State Game Sanctuary – one of the planet’s finest bear viewing destinations), overland to the south shore of Lake Iliamna, across Lake Iliamna on the lake bed to the north shore ,and finally to the mine site.
- A 270 megawatt power plant.
- A Year-round ice-breaking barge to cross Lake Iliamna. Part of the nearly 100-mile private transportation corridor from the deepwater port to the mine site. The road system would include 200+ salmon stream crossings, including famed Upper Talarik Creek and the Gibraltar River.
- A 15 square mile development footprint. Including 6.4 square miles of wetlands dug up or filled.
- Billions of gallons of wastewater. All of which will be needing to be discharged annually, with one discharge site located at the North Fork of the Koktuli River (tributary to the Mulchatna River, and eventually the Nushagak).
- An operating schedule of two 12-hour shifts per day, 365 days per year for an initial period of 20 years.
4th Time’s the Charm?
Nothing like this has a place in the headwaters of the world’s most productive wild salmon fishery and one of the planet’s most incredible sport fishing destinations. That’s why millions of Americans have spoken up in opposition to this reckless scheme. And, it appears that a number of the world’s biggest mining companies are in agreement.
Northern Dynasty thought they had found a financial lifeline in the form of a proposed agreement with Canadian mining firm First Quantum Minerals. First Quantum was considering an investment of $150 million to take Pebble through the permitting process, with an option to purchase 50% of the project for an additional $1.35 billion should permits be secured. But, First Quantum declined to finalize that agreement, leaving Northern Dynasty a jilted bride standing at the altar, joining the ranks of Mitsubishi, Rio Tinto, and Anglo American as global mining companies that have backed out of the Pebble Mine project.
Permitting Process So Far
Unfortunately, and seemingly acting on a politically-driven timeline, the Army Corps has been moving at breakneck speed with the announced intention of having a Record of Decision issued in early 2020… before the next Presidential election. Typically, the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) process takes several more years to move from Scoping to Draft EIS, to Final EIS, to the Record of Decision. Army Corps has been aggressively advancing this process, some would argue in the absence of an actual complete application from Pebble. In the first stage – scoping – Army Corps proposed a mere 30-day comment period to hear from all interested parties on what exactly should be considered as the Corps reviews the permit to build a monstrous mine in Bristol Bay’s headwaters.
Facing very strong pushback, including from Alaska’s senior U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski, the Corps relented and extended the comment period to 90 days. Meetings were held in several (but not all) affected Bristol Bay communities as well as in Anchorage and Homer. However, the public was not allowed to deliver their comments in front of attendees in Anchorage or Homer, and instead were relegated to giving their comments to a court reporter who took them individually in only those two cities. Approximately midway through the scoping comment period (which concluded in late June 2018), Pebble submitted plan revisions to their application. And, unsurprisingly, the proposed mine had grown in scale from what had been initially applied for. So far, Army Corps has not deemed these revisions significant enough to revisit the scoping process, despite calls from Alaska’s Governor Walker to suspend the process.
The Army Corps intends to release the Draft Environmental Impact Statement in January 2019, and after an undetermined public comment period (BE READY to say NO PEBBLE MINE again), release the Final Environmental Impact Statement in late 2019.
The proposed pace of this is dizzying, as the EIS process took over six years for the Donlin mine project in Alaska while the Army Corps is trying to ramrod the Pebble EIS through in roughly two years. We need to do whatever possible to slow this train down, so there might also be future opportunities to educate your members of Congress on ways to protect Bristol Bay.
Also, Alaskans will have the opportunity to vote in a few weeks on Ballot Measure One, which would update Alaska’s large mine permitting process and make it more friendly to wild salmon. The initiative is being opposed by huge multinational extractive industry companies like ExxonMobil, BP Alaska, and yes, the Pebble Partnership. You can learn more at Stand for Salmon.
Stay tuned for another update soon highlighting several brands that are part of Businesses for Bristol Bay, and what they are doing to help the campaign to protect Bristol Bay.