State now has an opportunity to veto Pebble Mine. Pebble foes aren’t getting their hopes up.

Sockeye salmon delivered in Bristol Bay. (File photo by KDLG)
Sockeye salmon delivered in Bristol Bay. (File photo by KDLG)

Opponents of the Pebble Mine say it’s not enough that the Army Corps of Engineers announced last week that the project, as proposed, can’t get a wetlands permit. Anti-Pebble advocates want a veto. The Environmental Protection Agency has that power. And as of this week, the state has that authority, too. But it won’t last long.

The Corps of Engineers has asked the state for a “certificate of reasonable assurance” that the Pebble Mine will comply with federal and state water quality laws. The Army Corps can’t grant Pebble’s permit if the state refuses to issue that certification.

Salmon State campaign strategist Lindsey Bloom says the state should seize the moment.

“This is the state of Alaska’s one and only opportunity in the Clean Water Act permitting process to really red-light or green-light the permit,” said Bloom, a commercial fisherman from Juneau who works on salmon conservation issues.

As she and other Pebble opponents see it, the mine can’t meet Alaska water quality standards because, according to the environmental report the Army Corps released in July, the mine and its transportation corridor would impact nearly 200 miles of streams and thousands of acres of wetlands.

“The State of Alaska has an anti-degradation policy,” Bloom said. “Will this project violate that policy?… Yes, there will be significant degradation of some of our state’s most productive and pristine waters in the headwaters of Bristol Bay.”

The Pebble Partnership launched a campaign to highlight another conclusion the Corps of Engineers reached. Despite the impact to some streams and wetlands, the Corps says “Impacts to Bristol Bay salmon are not expected to be measurable.”

Pebble spokesman Mike Heatwole said by email that some of the effects on streams would be minimal, such as lowering the volume but only to a degree that’s within the seasonal variation. And he said some of the miles of stream the Corps is counting don’t meet other definitions of “stream.”

The state’s opportunity to veto the project rests with the Department of Environmental Conservation. Its commissioner is Jason Brune. He used to lobby for the Pebble Mine as a government relations manager of Anglo-American, when that company was a partner in the project.

Bloom said Brune should steer clear of all decisions about Pebble because, she claims, he isn’t objective.

“Jason Brune is unapologetically biased and pro-Pebble,” she said, “and he gets to make the call.”

A search of Brune’s social media history shows enthusiasm for mining, large mines and Pebble specifically.

In 2018, Brune tweeted, “I’ve spent a lot of my life learning about this project and I have no doubt it can be developed safely and will coexist with the salmon fishery.”

He also carved his message onto pumpkins. Around Halloween in 2015 he changed his Facebook profile to a photo of a jack o’lantern carved with the word “Pebble” as the mouth. Two years later, after the Trump administration lifted Obama-era restrictions on the mine, Brune carved a pumpkin to read “Pebble is back.”

All of these were before he became DEC commissioner.

Brune declined to be interviewed for this story.

“I will not recuse myself from anything pertaining to Pebble, especially as I have no financial interests in the project,” Brune said in an email. “It is to Alaskans’ benefit that I have experience in this industry, and will bring that experience to bear in ensuring that our public health and environment are protected. I also have full confidence in my team and will give deference to their expertise.”

He referred other questions to Randy Bates, DEC’s director of water, who said Alaska’s rules against degradation of streams are complex.

“Our statutory requirement is to protect the water uses and the ‘level of water quality necessary to protect existing uses, including propagation of fish, shellfish, wildlife, recreation in and upon the water,’” he said, quoting the law. “But there are opportunities to massage that, or allow variants upon that.”

Bates said the decision will be left to the department’s professional staff.

“Am I looking at it too? Yeah, but right now it’s staff’s decision,” he said.

The DEC has less than a month to issue its verdict, though Bates says it could ask for an extension.

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