Updated 5:45 p.m.: The Army Corps of Engineers on Friday released the final environmental impact statement on the Pebble project in Southwest Alaska, stating the mine "would not be expected to have a measurable effect on fish numbers" in the Bristol Bay salmon fishery, the world's largest.
The EIS was met with an immediate outcry from several groups that have been battling the development of the mine, which would be the largest in the United States and is located at the top of the watersheds that feed Bristol Bay.
The decision is an about-face from the Obama administration's conclusion in 2014 that the mine could case irreparable harm to the fisheries.
The Pebble project is 200 miles southwest of Anchorage and 60 miles west of Cook Inlet, near Lake Iliamna. According to the project description by Pebble Partnership, during its 20 years of production, the mine would produce an annual average of 318 million pounds of copper; 362,000 ounces of gold; 14 million pounds of molybdenum; and 1.8 million ounces of silver.
Pebble Partnership CEO Tom Collier said in a statement that the publication of the final EIS is one of the most significant milestones so far for the project.
"The next steps facing the company and the project will be to secure a major funding partner and acquire the state permits necessary to take Pebble into production," Collier said.
He called the process "thorough" and "thoughtful."
"The final EIS for Pebble unequivocally shows it can be developed without harming salmon populations," Collier said. "It clearly states that no long term measurable impacts to returning salmon are to be expected and there will be no long term changes to the health of the Bristol Bay commercial fishery."
The Corps noted in its announcement that the "final EIS is not a permit decision and does not authorize operation of the mine."
A formal record of decision is due in the next 30 days. There is no public comment period on the final EIS.
State permitting is expected to take two to three years, followed by four years of construction before the mine began production.
But several tribal and environmental groups are saying the final EIS is fundamentally flawed and includes transportation alternatives across private land for which the landowners have refused permission.
Jason Metrokin, president and CEO of Bristol Bay Native Corp., said the EIS does not alleviate the Alaska Native regional corporation's concerns about the risks Pebble would pose to Bristol Bay's watershed, salmon, way of life, and economy.
"As we have said throughout this process, and as Congress emphasized in the fall of 2019, adverse impacts to Bristol Bay's world-class salmon fishery and ecosystem from the proposed Pebble mine are unacceptable," Metrokin said in a statement. "Though we are closely examining the entirety of the EIS, it clearly states that a 20-year mine plan would, at minimum, directly impact over 3,000 acres of wetlands and other waters, over 2,200 acres of which would be lost permanently and directly destroy over 105 miles of streams.
"These impacts are the result of mining just 13% of the ore deposit; Pebble Limited Partnership acknowledges the mine is likely to expand in the future," he said.
Bristol Bay Native Corp. plans to release a more detailed analysis of the EIS following a full review.
An alliance of Bristol Bay leaders noted that the final EIS didn't differ significantly from the draft version, which was "universally criticized" by the Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Interior, Fish and Wildlife Service, Alaska Department of Fish and Game and other agencies, saying it was "inadequate and drastically underestimated the impacts of Pebble on the waters, salmon and people of the Bristol Bay region."
In a joint statement, the alliance leaders said "Despite the announcement today, this fight is nowhere near over, more permitting is required, local landowners are blocking the transportation route, and the project remains too toxic for investors.
"It’s time for our elected leaders to stop this corruption and hold the government accountable. Sen. Murkowski and Congress have asked the EPA to veto this project if its devastating impacts are not addressed and now the verdict is in: Pebble will have unavoidable consequences for our people, communities and resources, and the mine must be stopped.”
A study commissioned by the Bristol Bay Defense Alliance shows that the Pebble’s plan and environmental review does not adequately account for seismic risks at the proposed mine site, leaving the region’s fishery, communities and cultures exposed to significant devastation.
A peer-reviewed study by an international team of seismologists and geotechnical engineers details numerous problems with the seismic work conducted for the proposed mine. The reported problems include use of obsolete studies, use of seismic models that are no longer accepted by the scientific community, failure to collect information about seismic activity at the mine site, and an underestimation of the project’s risks.
The Orvis Company, Trout Unlimited, Katmai Service Providers, and hundreds of other sporting businesses and organizations recently called on the president, and his administration, to deny the permit because of the massive impacts it would have to Bristol Bay’s fisheries and its $1.6 billion fishing industry. Additionally, the groups reiterate the scientific consensus that estimated impacts likely are vastly underestimated due to Pebble’s incomplete mine plan and the Corps’ inadequate subsequent review.
“This process has outlined significant destruction of critical fish habitat and it is acknowledged by the Army Corps that the likelihood of expansion is highly probable, thus making the current plan unrealistic. The document also assumes that Pebble will be able to cross private lands, which, as of now, it does not have the permission to do,” said Brian Kraft, president of Katmai Service Providers, which represents dozens of sportfishing and tourism businesses in Bristol Bay.
“Bristol Bay is the most important salmon fishery in the world and supports tens of thousands of jobs,” said Collin O’Mara, president and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation. “The science is overwhelmingly clear: the proposed Pebble Mine is a catastrophe waiting to happen. It’s simply unconscionable to fast-track such a high-risk project with a shoddy environment review that failed to evaluate the consequences should the proposed six-story dam fail and release 10 billion gallons of toxic waste into Bristol Bay’s treasured, pristine ecosystem. The administration should instead put a stop to this project and protect Alaska’s salmon and the communities that depend upon Bristol Bay. Since they won’t, we will see them in court.”
Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy also released a statement Friday, noting the EIS is one step in a lengthy regulatory process.
"The Pebble Partnership has not even initiated the state permitting process and is not expected to do so until a record of decision is released by the Corps of Engineers later this year," his statement reads. "When that happens, the Pebble Project will undergo a thorough, fact-based analysis by the appropriate state agencies to determine if it meets Alaska's high standards for environmental protection."
Staff writer Julie Stricker can be reached at 459-7532.