By Ralph Andersen, Norm Van Vactor, Jason Metrokin and Alannah Hurley
The scoping period for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ review of the proposed Pebble mine permit application concluded on June 29, around the same time that Bristol Bay’s robust commercial salmon fishery was in full swing. Although the purpose of the scoping period is to provide the public with an opportunity to identify the issues the Corps should address in the review process, the period ended with many unanswered questions about the project proposal itself.
The Pebble Limited Partnership (PLP) has yet to answer or is unable to answer some very basic questions about the proposed project, and its permit application lacked the type of information and documentation that would normally accompany an application for a project as complex and controversial as Pebble. It is therefore no surprise that many Alaskans – including all of the undersigned and the governor – asked the Corps of Engineers to suspend its review.
We also do not know at present whether any scale of mining operations at Pebble is economically feasible. PLP has not completed a financial feasibility study. PLP prefers to let the Corps of Engineers and the thousands of Alaskans who are concerned about the project ensure a prolonged permitting process before it assesses whether the project will pencil out. This puts the cart before the horse. By way of comparison, the Donlin Project in Western Alaska completed multiple economic feasibility studies before filing for its permit application with the Corps.
Another area of concern is that PLP has once again lost its financial partner. First Quantum Minerals pulled out of its framework agreement with PLP’s parent company Northern Dynasty Minerals last May and cut off its funding for the permitting process. To date, no new partners have emerged. This begs the very real and immediate question. Can PLP fund the current permitting process?
Shifting mine plans, the lack of an independent tailing facility engineering review and financial uncertainty are far from the only red flags. PLP’s permit application is lacking sufficient and recent environmental baseline data for many project components, including an adequate wetlands delineation and a compensatory mitigation plan. The Corps itself has acknowledged extensive data gaps through its more than three dozen Requests for Information set to PLP’s permitting contractor. Many of these requests remain unanswered.
PLP has reacted to this criticism with bluster. Collier has dismissed the criticism of Pebble as the work of “national environmental groups” that are “anti-Alaska, anti-development.” But that is not the case. We are Alaskans and we oppose the project.
Let us not forget what is at stake. Bristol Bay’s commercial salmon fishery once again opened with remarkably strong early-season returns in the Nushagak District, including multiple days with sockeye salmon harvests exceeding a million fish. Successful management has sustained the commercial and subsistence fisheries in Bristol Bay for well more than 100 years and can continue to do so for many generations more.
The proposed Pebble mine poses fundamental and unacceptable risks to the salmon fisheries of the Bristol Bay region and the economic and subsistence benefits those fisheries provide. Suspending the permitting process is the right thing to do. It is the only option for all who depend on Bristol Bay for their livelihoods and way of life.
Ralph Andersen is the president and CEO of Bristol Bay Native Association. Norm Van Vactor is president and CEO of the Bristol Bay Economic Development Corporation. Jason Metrokin is president and CEO of Bristol Bay Native Corporation. Alannah Hurley is executive director of the United Tribes of Bristol Bay.