Bristol Bay's Pebble Mine Is Back in Play

One of the most contentious environmental fights of the past 30 years is suddenly back in the news, now that EPA head Scott Pruitt is poised to withdraw measures protecting the bay's storied salmon runs

Boats on Bristol Bay (Emma Forsberg/Flickr)

When residents of the small town of Dillingham, on Alaska’s Bristol Bay, convened in a local school gym to deliver comments to representatives of the Environmental Protection Agency last Wednesday, there was a powerful sense of déjà vu about the proceedings. “It’s frustrating that we have to do this over and over again,” said Verner Wilson, a Bristol Bay Native from Dillingham and longtime mine opponent, after the meeting. “How many times do we have to say no Pebble Mine, not now, not ever?”

Indeed, many in the mostly local crowd of approximately 100 had given similar testimony previously, some multiple times, and returned this time to voice disappointment at the EPA’s decision to withdraw the protective measures that the Obama-era EPA had recommended. The town is a central hub of the Bristol Bay salmon fishery and has long been the center of resistance to the mine, so it wasn’t surprising that over the course of the nearly four-hour hearing, not one person testified in support of the development.

The only other hearing, in the town of Iliamna, which is nearer to the mine site and employed a number of local residents when it was the base of Pebble’s exploratory operations, produced more mixed testimony, with a number of residents calling for the EPA to withdraw the restrictions and give Pebble a chance at permitting. “We can make good decisions for our own land, and we don’t need the federal government to create more unwanted regulations,” said Lorene Anelon, president of Iliamna Natives Limited.

But the voices from Dillingham were more reflective of the growing frustration in a region that mostly opposes the mine, particularly in light of recent revelations about how EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt made his decision on Bristol Bay. That process was summed up with a flourish at the hearing by longtime mine opponent and Dillingham resident Kim Williams: “You have come here after a half-hour meeting between Administrator Pruitt and Pebble CEO Tom Collier to take away what we spent 15 years fighting for.”

The controversial—and still entirely hypothetical—Pebble Mine is the development project that Alaskans simply cannot escape, and one that many worry could still become one of the largest open-pit mines in the world. The massive gold, copper, and molybdenum deposit, potentially worth hundreds of billions of dollars, has been a lightning rod for controversy virtually since its discovery more than 30 years ago. It has been the subject of media campaigns, ballot initiatives, documentary films, and endless speculative chatter, from the barrooms of local fishing towns to the halls of Congress.

Why? Location, primarily. One of the world’s largest-known copper deposits sits underneath a pristine patch of tundra near the headwaters of rivers that help sustain Bristol Bay’s legendary salmon run, which this past summer saw nearly 60 million fish surge up Bristol Bay’s rivers to spawn. The salmon support local subsistence users, a world-famous sportfishing industry, and a commercial fishery that supports 12,000 jobs and a $1.5 billion economic impact. So it’s understandable that a massive mine with the potential to foul this ecosystem has met with fierce opposition from those who rely on the world’s largest run of wild sockeye salmon for their sustenance, livelihood, and way of life.

A year ago, it looked as though this long saga might be drawing to a close. In 2014, after three years of study, the EPA proposed restrictions on mining in Bristol Bay based on its Clean Water Act authority. The EPA had begun looking at the potential effects of a large-scale mine like Pebble on Bristol Bay in 2010, prompted by requests from local tribal groups and stakeholders. The agency’s three-year study, based on extensive research and peer reviewed by a team of scientists, resulted in the Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment, which found that such a mine would pose an unacceptable risk and recommended restrictions on the size of mine that might be permissible in Bristol Bay. This so-called Proposed Determination came under immediate fire from Pebble and its supporters as a “preemptive veto” that deprived them of their right to a fair permitting process.

But Northern Dynasty Minerals, the Canadian company that has owned the rights to Pebble since 2001, had never come close to applying for permits despite repeatedly promising to do so and having spent hundreds of millions of dollars on the exploration phase, funded by partners Anglo American and Rio Tinto. By 2014, Pebble was on the ropes, low on cash, abandoned by its deeper-pocketed partners—Anglo walked away in 2013, followed by Rio in 2014—and bedeviled by local, state, and national opposition. But the company wasn’t about to go down without a fight and began pouring what money it had into litigation and lobbying, launching three lawsuits against the EPA and an intensive Capitol Hill lobbying effort targeting what it saw as EPA overreach, using periodic stock offerings and special warrant sales to generate the cash to pay for it.

Tom Collier, the new CEO the company found in 2014 to lead this effort, was uniquely suited to the task of navigating both the legal and political sides as an attorney who had worked as Bruce Babbitt’s chief of staff in the Department of the Interior during the Clinton administration. (Collier, it’s worth noting, was also uniquely incentivized: his contract allows for discretionary bonuses related to Pebble’s progress, as well as an “extraordinary bonus” of up to $12.5 million should Pebble successfully secure a 404 Permit under the Clean Water Act.) Eventually, one of its lawsuits, alleging that the EPA had improperly consulted outside advisers and environmentalists in its Bristol Bay work, convinced a U.S. District Court judge in Alaska to issue a preliminary injunction temporarily halting EPA work related to Pebble.

Which is basically where things stood in November, when Trump’s election seemingly reversed Pebble’s fortunes overnight and prompted a distinct shift in direction for the EPA. Though the lawsuit was still unresolved, Northern Dynasty was soon telling investors it had a high degree of confidence that both the lawsuit and the EPA’s proposed determination would go away. Given EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s industry-friendly, deregulation-heavy mindset, the company had good reason to be confident. Sure enough, on May 11, a settlement was announced in which the EPA agreed to initiate the process to withdraw the proposed determination, couching it in the same due-process argument that Collier so often used. “The agreement will not guarantee or prejudge a particular outcome,” Pruitt said in a statement at the time, “but will provide Pebble a fair process for their permit application and help steer EPA away from costly and time-consuming litigation.” On July 11, the EPA officially initiated the process to withdraw the proposed determination, which triggered a 90-day comment period, set to end on October 17.

But just a few days before EPA representatives traveled to Bristol Bay for the public comment sessions, CNN broadcast a damning report that shed light on just how Pruitt had made his Bristol Bay decision. Earlier reporting on Pruitt’s calendar, obtained via a FOIA request by the group American Oversight, confirmed that it was stuffed with industry-friendly meetings, including a half-hour meeting between Pruitt and Pebble CEO Collier in Pruitt’s office at 9:15 a.m. on May 1, never mind that the two men were ostensibly still on opposite sides of an unresolved lawsuit. CNN uncovered an email sent at 10:36 a.m., showing that Pruitt made his decision immediately after the meeting, despite the fact that he had not been briefed on the Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment or any of the science or rationale behind it—in fact, staff were still in the process of putting together a briefing book for him. “We have been directed by the administrator to withdraw the proposed determination,” reads the email sent out to a group of EPA senior staff. “As far as the basis [for the decision], we will need to develop the most defensible basis we can….”

Collier and his team, for their part, have been busy trying to make the most of this moment. On October 5, he gave a presentation that the company touted as a new plan for “a better mine,” one aimed at addressing mine opponents’ concerns and getting to permitting quickly. Collier couldn’t help taking a small victory lap at the outset. “I remember the last time I was here, I gave a detailed explanation of how we were going to win this battle with EPA—how we were going to get them off our backs and be able to go into permitting, and as I looked around the room I saw a lot of very skeptical faces,” he said. “But that’s where we are.”

It was a presentation full of bluster but relatively light on details—less mine plan than marketing plan. The new version of Pebble that Collier described would be smaller (a 5.4-square-mile footprint instead of 13.5), with smaller, safer tailings dams. It would also ostensibly be greener, operating for a shorter duration, forgoing the use of cyanide to extract gold, impacting fewer miles of streams and wetlands, utilizing an ice-breaking ferry instead of a long-haul road, and initiating a profit-sharing program that would put $5 million a year into the local community. Collier was silent on many of the specifics, particularly the economics of a smaller mine, but he seemed intent on countering many of the problems that the EPA’s assessment had highlighted and assuring investors that this smaller Pebble plan was ready to go and that it would achieve the kind of social license that the larger Pebble never had.

Opponents weren’t buying it, with many seeing this smaller version as just the first phase of what’s bound to be a larger, more damaging project. “This is just a wolf in a sheep’s clothing,” said Alannah Hurley, executive director of the United Tribes of Bristol Bay, in a statement. The profit sharing wasn’t viewed any more charitably. “This is another attempt by Pebble to purchase support,” Hurley said in her statement. “But the people of Bristol Bay will not be bought.”

Once the comment period draws to a close—nearly 300,000 comments have been registered online—the EPA will almost certainly remove the largest remaining federal hurdle for Pebble. But the past couple weeks have also served as a reminder that they still face obstacles at the state level. Just the day before Collier outlined Pebble’s new plan, Governor Bill Walker came out against the mine. And then, early last week, an Anchorage judge ruled that a ballot initiative intended to protect salmon could move forward. The initiative, which is supported by many Pebble opponents, would create a new permit system for development projects in fish habitat and, barring appeal, will be on the ballot in 2018.

While it is unlikely to alter the EPA’s decision, the CNN report seemed to put the issue back on Congress’ radar, with a letter from a group of more than 40 senators and congressmen, asking President Trump to reconsider removing protections for Bristol Bay and extend the public comment period to accommodate additional discussion and hearings. Their letter criticized the lack of transparency in Pruitt’s decision. “The EPA’s plan to reverse clean water safeguards is egregious and inconsistent with science and frankly, inconsistent with basic logic,” it read.

In response, the EPA said it would review the request to extend the comment period, but many suspect that no amount of additional comments will change Pruitt’s mind. So Pebble will be left, for now, with what it has said it wanted all along: a chance to apply for permits without the threat of EPA action hanging over it. The EPA has pushed the door open a crack, and it’s up to Pebble to walk through. It is making motions in that direction, as the skeletally staffed company announced two key hires late last week: one to oversee engineering and project development and the other to oversee permitting.

The clock is ticking: under the terms of the May settlement with the EPA, Pebble has 30 months from the settlement date to submit permit applications and four years to get those applications approved. If it does not meet those deadlines, the EPA can once again step in with 404(c) authority, and it retains the ability to invoke that authority during the permitting process, after an Environmental Impact Statement has been filed. As Pebble representatives have been quick to note, the lifting of EPA restrictions is not a green light.

For the residents of Bristol Bay, it has become clear that the EPA cannot help them—not right now, at least—which leaves them in a sadly familiar position: wait and see. Will Pebble actually apply for permits this time around? Will another deep-pocketed mining company or consortium of investors partner with Pebble? Will Scott Pruitt stay at the EPA or jump ship to run for Senate? Will Trump win reelection? Will any of Pebble’s promises to the region come to fruition? And will Pebble’s opponents, worn down from years of a seesaw battle, be able to keep up the pressure?

On that last question, at least, those fighting the mine remain resolute. “What I told the EPA representatives is that it comes down to what kind of world you want your kids to live in,” said Wilson, of Dillingham. “We’ll do what we have to do to stop this mine. We’re not going to sit down. This place is a national treasure.”

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