Corps sets conditions for Pebble Mine that may be impossible to meet

Opponents of the Pebble mine project rallied in Anchorage Monday, August 21, 2017. (Photo by Henry Leasia/Alaska Public Media)

The Army Corps of Engineers has not killed the proposed Pebble Mine — just issued a letter imposing conditions that may be impossible to meet.

Mine opponents say the Corps is finally listening to fishermen and the people of Bristol Bay who say the mine threatens the salmon and their way of life.

In an emailed statement, Bristol Bay Native Corporation President Jason Metrokin said the Pebble Partnership “has never, even after decades of planning and outreach, been able to prove that it can be built and operated without causing significant degradation to the Bristol Bay region and its fisheries.”

The Corps’ letter outlines what Pebble’s developers would have to do to mitigate damage to wetlands and streams.

While the Corps concluded a month ago that the project would have “no measurable effect” on Bristol Bay salmon, it’s recent letter to Pebble said the mine “would result in significant degradation to … aquatic resources.”

The Corps’ parent agency, the U.S. Army, put it more plainly. “The Corps finds that the project, as currently proposed, cannot be permitted under section 404 of the Clean Water Act,” it said in an official statement on its website.

But “as currently proposed” leaves a door open, and Pebble CEO Tom Collier is wedging his foot in the gap. Collier insisted the permitting plan for the mine is still on track.

“The Corps, you know, is not in the habit of sending people a letter that requires them to do something that can’t be done,” he said. “I mean, that’s crazy.”

Collier said he’ll submit a new mitigation proposal in the coming weeks that will comply with all of the Corps’ conditions.

Compensatory mitigation is a key feature of the Clean Water Act and the “no net loss” policy on wetlands. The idea is that if you want to build a project that damages wetlands or streams, you must offset that damage by improvements, ideally to the same kind of resources and in the same area.

The mine and its transportation corridor would damage, directly or indirectly, nearly 200 miles of streams and thousands of acres of wetlands. Pebble had proposed to go farther afield for mitigation, to improve the inadequate sewage systems in three Southwest villages and replace culverts in Dillingham and King Salmon. That’s known as “out-of-kind” mitigation.

The Army Corps, in the letter made public Monday, said that won’t do.

The agency said “in-kind compensatory mitigation within the Koktuli River Watershed will be required to compensate for all direct and indirect impacts caused by discharges into aquatic resources at the mine site.”

In other words, if Pebble has to damage parts of the Koktuli, it must improve other parts of the Koktuli.

Senior attorney Joel Reynolds, western director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, is among those who say that would be an impossible feat. He said there’s nothing to improve in the Koktuli watershed that’s on the scale of the damage the mine would inflict.

“It’s a perfectly functioning pristine, natural ecosystem,” Reynolds said. “It’s an incubator for trillions of salmon over thousands of years, and the notion that Northern Dynasty (Pebble’s parent company) has anything to offer it in terms of improvement is ridiculous.”

Collier won’t say what exactly Pebble would improve, but he said mitigation doesn’t have to remedy manmade damage. He also rejected the suggestion that Pebble would try to improve on nature.

Alaska’s U.S. senators issued a joint statement praising the Corps’s decision, saying the administration found Pebble did not meet the high standards required. The senators came down publicly against the mine more definitively than ever before, and they spoke of the matter with finality.

“I agree that a permit should not be issued,” Sen. Lisa Murkowski said in the written statement.

Sen. Dan Sullivan’s remarks were much the same: “I support this conclusion … that a federal permit cannot be issued.”

Congressman Don Young says he’s concerned because the federal government is erecting a major barrier to a project that would be on state land.

While mine opponents celebrated Monday’s news, they said they want the Environmental Protection Agency to use a power it has under the Clean Water Act to veto the mine, to drive a stake into Pebble’s permit application.