Pebble Mine will clear environmental review this week, but is the project ‘practicable’?

Protestors of the Pebble Mine in Anchorage
Opponents of the Pebble Mine protested in Anchorage in 2019, arguing that the Corps of Engineers’ environmental review of the mine was inadequate. (Liz Ruskin/Alaska Public Media)

The proposed Pebble Mine comes one step closer to reality this week. David Hobbie, chief of regulation at the Army Corps of Engineers Alaska District, said his agency will publish the final Environmental Impact Statement on Pebble on Friday.

“It’s critical for folks to understand that the final EIS is not a permit decision,” he told reporters in a telephonic briefing on Monday.

Legally, the Corps could issue a permit for Pebble as soon as 30 days after the report is made public. Hobbie said the decision, for or against a permit, will come later this year.

All signs suggest the Corps is likely to approve the permit application for the gold and copper mine. That would distress Bristol Bay fishermen, tribes and Native corporations who say the project endangers the salmon at the heart of the local economy and culture.

The Corps caused a stir this spring when it switched gears and announced it no longer favored bringing the ore across Lake Illiamna by ferry. Its new preferred route – the “least environmentally damaging practicable alternative,” as it’s known in environmental law – goes north, around the lake, to a new port on Cook Inlet at a place called Diamond Point.

One thing that’s still not clear is how Pebble will get the permission it needs from area landowners. Native corporations that own land there oppose the mine and say they will never allow it.

A Corps permit doesn’t grant the right to use someone else’s real estate, but Hobbie said a landowner’s permission isn’t a prerequisite for federal permits.

“It is not uncommon, actually, for land developers  –  and I can speak from being in South Florida, where developers have come in and literally get permits for land they did not own in hopes of purchasing that land. So that is not a new practice,” Hobbie said.

Pebble Limited Partnership insists the mine can be safely developed and says it will provide jobs to a region that has very few.

“We intend to engage with all landowners along the northern route and believe we will be successful in obtaining access to the transportation corridor necessary for the project,” Pebble spokesman Mike Heatwole said by email.

But Bristol Bay Native Corporation (BBNC), the owner of the subsurface rights to land along the transportation corridor and at Diamond Point, remains adamantly opposed. The corporation’s vice president Dan Cheyette pointed out that it’s been another spectacular fishing year, with more than 35 million sockeye harvested from Bristol Bay.

“And the thought that this also is the place where there should be a large open-pit, pyritic mine just makes no sense,” Cheyette said. “This mine, this one particular mine, just has no place in Bristol Bay.”

Cheyette and other opponents say the northern route should be off the table because, without landowner permission, it can’t be considered “practicable.”

Hobbie said it’s the Corps that decides what’s practicable, but after the landowners wrote letters saying they would not allow Pebble to use their property, the Corps put the question to the mine developers.

“Once that information came in and Pebble said, ‘yes, that is still a practicable alternative for us,’ we still, you know, deemed it practicable at that point,” Hobbie said.

Mine opponents are likely to file lawsuits if the Corps grants the permit. They note that in 2017, Hobbie rejected alternatives for a project in Cordova, because the landowners did not consent, rendering those options “not practicable.”

With President Trump’s first term ticking down and a second term in doubt, Pebble doesn’t have a lot of time to lose.

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