Fight heats up over Alaska's Pebble Mine

A remote supply yard for exploratory drill rigs sits on the Pebble Partnership deposit Monday, Aug. 2, 2010, in southwest Alaska. The prospect is one of the largest concentrations of copper, gold, molybdenum and silver in the world. It also sits in the middle of the watershed for the world's largest sockeye salmon fishery. / Sam Harrel/News-Miner

The Pebble Partnership's federally-mandated plan to offset its mine project's impacts to wetlands and salmon-bearing streams includes cleaning beach debris, improving fish passage in compromised waters and upgrading the water treatment systems in area villages, but tribal leaders in the community closest to the proposed mine site don't feel it's adequate.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on Jan. 27 published Pebble's compensatory wetlands mitigation plan to counter the impacts the open-pit mine and its associated infrastructure, which includes 65 miles of roads, ports, and a roughly 180-mile gas pipeline from the Kenai Peninsula to help power the mining operation.

The Clean Water Act mandates the wetlands mitigation and the Army Corps of Engineers oversees wetlands fill permitting under the law.

Pebble expects to disrupt 3,083 acres of wetlands and water bodies under federal jurisdiction across the broad scope of the project and of that, 2,227 acres will be permanently impacted, according to the plan. More than 70 percent of the permanently impacted areas would be at the mine site.

The 856 acres of temporary impacts would be in areas of the transportation and pipeline corridors where some fill material would be used temporarily during construction and eventually removed, the plan states.

Upgrading the water treatment facilities in the villages of Newhalen, Nondalton and Kokhanok is Pebble's first mitigation initiative. According to the documents filed with the Corps of Engineers, demand on the wastewater treatment systems exceeds their designed handling capacity in all of the communities.

Newhalen and Kokhanok are on the north and south shores of Iliamna Lake, respectively, and Nondalton is north of the lake on the Newhalen River system near the southern boundary of Lake Clark National Park.

The company also plans to restore access for salmon to up to 8.5 miles of habitat — commensurate with the miles of streams the mine facilities would remove from the headwaters of the Koktuli River, which supports five species of salmon — mostly around Dillingham, the largest community in the Bristol Bay region.

The mitigation plan states that the portions of the Koktuli watershed that would be permanently removed generally have lower salmon spawning and rearing values, but Pebble acknowledges that indirect impacts from altered water flows and elevated nutrient levels could affect larger salmon spawning and rearing areas downstream.

Finally, Pebble is proposing to clean up marine debris from 7.4 miles of coastline around the proposed Amakdedori port site on the west side of Cook Inlet, from which the company hopes to export its ore concentrates.

Pebble CEO Tom Collier said in a formal statement that the company "took a holistic approach" to offsetting the impacts from its development and tried to remedy existing issues related to salmon and water quality.

"Each initiative we are proposing tackles lingering environmental issues that might not otherwise be addressed due to local financial constraints and competing priorities in the area," Collier said.

Pebble Vice President of Permitting James Fueg said in an interview that the company first did its best to minimize wetlands impacts by scaling back the size of the mine and redesigning facilities in its overall project plan.

However, he said the lack of development in the region beyond the immediate communities made it difficult for the company to identify opportunities to restore damaged wetlands or preserve areas threatened by other development; those are the mitigation options traditionally preferred by the Corps.

Fueg stressed that the coastline rehabilitation is not "just a visual thing," but that it addresses direct problems for wildlife. He noted it's a remote area that otherwise likely wouldn't be cleaned of lost fishing gear and other debris.

"We've seen cases out there of birds and other things that have gotten entangled in the ropes and nets lying around there so it's easy to demonstrate that's a real threat," Fueg said.

The company would continue to monitor and clear the section of shoreline through the life of the project, which is currently pegged at about 20 years, he added.

The Corps of Engineers has the final say over what Pebble must do to mitigate its impacts to wetlands and could amend the company's proposal when it issues its record of decision on the overall project plan, which is tentatively set for this coming summer.

Fueg said whatever mitigation work ultimately needs to be done will be finished before any work is done on the mine itself.

The fish access projects would focus on replacing damaged or poorly installed culverts that prevent salmon from moving freely to their desired habitat for a given life stage. Culverts and similar potential barriers can impede adult fish passage, but more often they prevent juvenile salmon or resident species from moving back upstream to prime rearing areas during their seasonal migrations, according to Department of Fish and Game biologists.

"Frankly, there are hundreds of culverts in the state database (that need fixing) and the reality is that while there may be a quote-unquote 'responsible party' associated with that — in other words, who's the owner of the road; who's the owner of the right-of-way — the fiscal situation being what it is the majority of those are not going to be fixed anytime soon," Fueg said. "So there's an opportunity to do good there and a lot of opportunities for further mitigation if we need to go down that road."

Each of the water treatment projects will likely cost multiple millions of dollars, according to Fueg, who also acknowledged they will require complete access to the facilities but said the Tribes in the communities were supportive of the concept.

Nondalton Tribal Council President George Alexie said his council has opposed Pebble "from day one" and discussed the prospect of the company working on the community's water infrastructure.

Pebble's mitigation plans simply don't do enough to offset the damage the project will do to large areas of spawning and rearing habitat at the mine site, Alexie contends.

"The council opposed the idea of Pebble trying to weasel their way in and throwing all their money around. They tried that a few times but the council didn't want anything to do with it," he said.

Nondalton's water treatment plant is controlled by the city council, according to Alexie, but he said the group shares the Tribal council's beliefs about the controversial mine plan in-part because several individuals serve on both panels.

Nondalton City Council officials could not be reached in time for this story.

When asked whether he believed Pebble would be granted access to do the proposed work, he said, "I have my doubts."

Tribal leaders in Newhalen have not explicitly supported the project in formal comments, but have expressed desires for more economic opportunities in the region on multiple occasions.

Many Newhalen and Kokhanok residents are also shareholders of Alaska Peninsula Corp., a Native village corporation that supports the project and has an agreement with Pebble to allow the company to use its land around Iliamna Lake for its transportation corridor.

Lake and Peninsula Borough Manager Nathan Hill said it's not his role to evaluate the plan but borough officials sought to ensure that mitigation work benefitted the region and connected Pebble with local individuals who could help make that happen.

He said he heard that early on the company was considering doing culvert work in the Mat-Su area — where fish passage impediments are a bigger problem — and thought mitigation closer to the project footprint made sense.

Hill emphasized that the borough has not taken a stance on Pebble because it has its own local development permits the company must secure, but he also noted that the village leaders will have the final say as to whether or not they want Pebble to do the work in their communities.