In the wake of Pebble Tapes, scrutiny for state involvement in wetlands mitigation plan

Over the summer, the Pebble Limited Partnership set up two camps along the Koktuli River to conduct wetlands studies about 27 miles away from its base camp at the proposed mine site. Aug. 4, 2020. (courtesy Alaska Department of Fish and Game)

Pebble is now less than a month away from its deadline to submit a new mitigation plan to show how it will  make up for the wetlands damage expected from construction of the mine. The plan is key to obtaining a federal permit, and Pebble says it will meet that deadline, but the secretly-recorded “Pebble Tapes” have triggered additional scrutiny about the state’s apparent assistance with the plan.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers told the company at the end of August that its plan has to include improving parts of Bristol Bay’s Koktuli River watershed to make up for the damages. That’s called in-kind compensatory mitigation — a departure from Pebble’s original proposal.

In the tapes, former CEO Tom Collier said the state plays a crucial role in meeting that new requirement.

“This mitigation plan that we’re putting together, almost all of the land is state land. And so, the state has to be a partner with us,” he said to the person posing as an investor for the Environmental Investigation Agency, which released the tapes. “And what we’re gonna do with that land is we’re gonna turn it into a preserve. We’re gonna set it aside, put a conservation easement on it.”

Collier continued, saying the land “will be available for hunting and fishing only in the State of Alaska. And we would not be able to respond positively to this letter we got today if the state weren’t there as our partner moving forward with this plan.”

House Speaker Bryce Edgmon and Representative Louise Stutes wrote a letter to Gov. Mike Dunleavy at the end of September asking him to stop working with Pebble on the plan, which would include actions on state land in the Koktuli River watershed. In the letter, they said, “We see no way that PLP can advance a compensatory mitigation plan without the State’s involvement.”

But so far, Dunleavy hasn’t pulled back. Instead, in a letter on Oct. 6, he maintained that it is his job as governor to allow for as much responsible development as possible.

Alannah Hurley is the executive director of the United Tribes of Bristol Bay, a group that opposes the mine. She said that Edgmon and Stutes were “spot on” in their request for the state to stop working with Pebble.

“What the state chooses to do in order to create some fantasy mitigation plan that could satisfy legal requirements with the Corps has yet to be seen,” she said. “And unfortunately, especially clear from this letter, they have a very strong advocate and partner in our governor.”

Construction of the mine would result in the loss of more than 2,800 acres of wetlands and nearly 130 miles of streams in Bristol Bay’s Koktuli River watershed, according to the Army Corps.

Over the summer, the Pebble Limited Partnership set up two camps along the Koktuli River to conduct wetlands studies about 27 miles away from its base camp at the proposed mine site. Pebble says they were on a Native allotment.

“None of this is being done with any type of public process, any type of transparency. We had no idea they were up there until people saw their man camps along the Koktuli,” Hurley said.

Following the release of the Pebble Tapes, several Bristol Bay organizations asked the Army Corps for a public comment period on the mitigation plan. Norm Van Vactor, CEO of the Bristol Bay Economic Development Corporation, said the Army Corps responded saying there was no mechanism for additional public comment. For Van Vactor, the Koktuli camp was another example of a lack of transparency in the permitting process.

“It was a large facility which we were subsequently told after we discovered it was put in by Pebble to assist them in developing their wetland mitigation plan,” he said. “It confirmed to the rest of us what we’ve known all along. And that is that the Army Corps of Engineers and others have been dealing behind closed doors with the Pebble Partnership, and have basically been in cahoots with each other.”

A screenshot of the location of Pebble’s camps on the Koktuli River. Aug. 4, 2020. (Courtesy Alaska Department of Fish and Game)

Company spokesperson Mike Heatwole confirmed that Pebble set up two camps in mid-July to map wetlands in the Koktuli drainage to meet the Corps’ new mitigation requirement. Camp size was limited to 20 people, and Heatwole said they had an additional camp for when the workload required more than that. He said basing that work away from the village of Iliamna was the best way to protect the community from COVID-19.

“We know that they look at furrow conditions, map the vegetation, and take photographs of the wetlands, really just to characterize the wetlands in the area,” he said. “And all of that is getting rolled up into our compensatory mitigation plan.”

Heatwole said they were aware of the Army Corps’ new mitigation requirement in early summer, although the Army Corps’ August letter was the first formal request for mitigation to the project’s wetlands impacts. He also said that Pebble notified the state about the Koktuli camps and secured the necessary permits for an operation on private land.

Laura Achee, the information officer for the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, said in an email that the state’s Food Safety and Sanitation Program issued two sanitation permits for Alaska Peninsula Corporation to operate temporary camps in the region of the Koktuli River. She said that based on their review of the submitted application, no other DEC Environmental Health or Water permits were required.

Not all reactions to Pebble’s mitigation efforts are negative. Lisa Reimers is the CEO of Iliamna Development Corporation and a board member of Iliamna Natives Limited. Reimers supports Pebble and she said she thinks the governor is doing the right thing. In her view, the company is simply following the directions of the Army Corps in its efforts to produce a plan.

“I agree with him,” she said. “Mitigation — depending on what the Army Corps is asking, they’ve been pretty good about their science. I’ve trusted the whole process that the Army Corps has gone through with Pebble.”

Pebble says it will meet the Army Corps’ Nov. 18 deadline for submitting the new mitigation plan. A final Record of Decision on the mine is expected this year.