Army Corps to reconsider Pebble Mine permit denial

April 27, 2023

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will review its 2020 permit denial of the Pebble Mine plan, potentially giving the project a longshot chance at survival.

By Kirk Moore

A detailed map of the proposed Pebble Mine in Alaska's Bristol Bay. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers map

After an appeal by the Pebble Limited Partnership, the agency’s reviewing officers issued an 81-page report April 24 that faulted some aspects of the permit decision by the Corps’ Alaska District. The administrative finding means the issue will be remanded back to the district for further consideration.

The Corps in 2020 rejected the Pebble partners’ application for permits to build an open-pit gold and copper mine upstream from tributaries to Bristol Bay, famed as the world’s most productive wild salmon fishery grounds, where activists for a decade had opposed mining.

The fortunes of Pebble backers have swung back and forth through three presidential administrations. In January 2023 the U.S. Environmental Protection Administration found the mine proposal to be incompatible with the federal Clean Water Act, precluding mineral development that would affect those salmon streams.

The Pebble Limited Partnership continues its legal appeals, but faces other barriers alongside the EPA decision. In December the Pedro Bay Corporation and Bristol Bay Heritage Land Trust finalized land conservation easements that would effectively block the Pebble developers’ preferred road route to the mining site.

In an April 26 statement, partnership CEO John Shively said his group’s appeals are continuing and still have the EPA’s veto as another target.

“I am encouraged that some in the federal government recognize the importance of following a fair and established process for reviewing resource projects in Alaska” said Shively. “Our technical and permitting team will now spend some time looking through all the material released today as there is a fair amount to digest.

“We have several issues in motion around the project and a key current focus for us right now is what next steps we will be taking regarding the EPA’s preemptive veto of the project.”

The new Corps review document includes a point-by-point analysis and discussion of objections presented by the Pebble partners, concluding that five of them are “without merit.” However, the reviewers did fault Corps officials for some three key points in their decision – including the potential danger of a future dam collapse at the mine site spilling tailings into the watershed.

The Alaska District included the spill risk analysis in its environmental impact statement, later acknowledged the risk was low in its record of decision, and “addressed it in the PIR (project information report) due to public concern,” the reviewers wrote in their analysis of the dam issue starting on page 62.

The potential for a future dam collapse and tailings spill has long been stressed publicly by Bristol Bay fishing and environmental activists. The Corps review suggests the danger may have been overstated in the agency’s decision making process.

“However, the District may have unduly weighted the potential for catastrophic failure as ‘likely’ while also stating that it is not reasonably foreseeable,” the reviewers wrote. “Therefore, RFA III.B.1. has merit. On remand, the District should consider how it addresses the potential for catastrophic failure and clearly support its analysis in the decision, based on information in the administrative record.”

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