Federal officials tasked with deciding whether to issue a crucial permit for the proposed Pebble mine, in Southwest Alaska, have identified as a preferred transportation route acreage owned by Alaska Native entities adamantly opposed to the mine.
The decision announced on Friday, May 22, by the US Army Corps of Engineers, identified the 82-mile two lane access road along the northern shore of Lake Iliamna as the least environmentally damaging way to develop a wetlands mitigation plan for the mine. The choice of a northern transportation route, which has not yet been approved, would change the port site for the mine to Diamond Point, which lies further north on Cook Inlet.
The new plan was actually identified in a memo from AECOM, the Los Angeles-based engineering firm hired by the Corps back in 2018 to draft the environmental impact statement for the mine, on April 24. When mine opponents found out about it on May 21, the day before the Corps’ announcement, they released it to some news media.
The USACE announcement was hailed as good news that the project is proceeding on schedule by Tom Collier, chief executive officer of the Pebble Limited Partnership in Anchorage. The PLP is a subsidiary of Hunter Dickinson Inc., a diversified global mining group with headquarters in Vancouver, British Columbia.
“From the beginning we have noted that the permitting process is an iterative process with no predetermined outcomes and this clearly demonstrates that,” Collier said. “This is a USACE decision and shows the permitting process working as designed to present the agencies views of the least environmentally damaging option.”
Owners of the land over which that transportation route would be laid meanwhile made it clear that they would not be making that land available for the mine.
USACE said during a May 22 teleconference they expect to complete a final environmental impact statement for the mine in June or July, followed this fall by a record of decision, which would trigger significant federal permits for the mine, including a federal Clean Water Act Section 404 permit, allowing for construction in wetlands.
Asked how the PLP planned to resolve the dispute over land use, Pebble Partnership spokesman Mike Heatwole said “we intend to work with each of the landowners along the northern corridor. We believe we will be able to gain the right of way needed to build the transportation corridor.”
Heatwole also said that the change of plan approved by the Corps of Engineers, to allow the PLP to utilize a transportation route north of Lake Iliamna, rather than its earlier routes that rely on ferries to cross the lake, came after the USACE asked the PLP to submit a project description for that alternative and they compiled.
A portion of the land over which the new transportation route would be laid traverses Bristol Bay Native Corp. surface and subsurface lands, including at its eastern terminus which sits on property jointly owned by subsidiaries of BBNC and Igiugig Village Council. Both entities had previously advised the corps and the PLP that these lands are not and will not be available to accommodate the mine, BBNC said in a statement issued shortly after the Corps’ announcement.
The battle over development of the PLP’s copper, gold and molybdenum mine began nearly two decades ago, when Northern Dynasty Minerals, a subsidiary of Hunter Dickenson, found a large deposit of copper, gold and molybdenum on state land in the area of the Bristol Bay watershed, home of the world’s largest run of wild sockeye salmon. Over decades the harvest of millions of these salmon has become a multi-million-dollar industry, providing thousands of jobs, with the harvest of millions of fish every year feeding people all over the world.
The fishery is also critical to the sport fishing industry, hundreds of Bristol Bay residents who live a subsistence lifestyle, and abundant wildlife in the region, ranging from bears to eagles.
Backers of the mine contend that they can build and operate the mine without harming the fishery, and, in Collier’s words, “bring substantial long-term economic activity and revenue to this part of Alaska. As interested stakeholder groups begin to see that the project can be done without harming the fishery and the benefits it will bring, we believe support for the project will continue to grow,” he said.
Collier acknowledged that the new route would pass through land owned by BBNC, Pedro Bay Corp. and Igiugig Village Council. The Igiugig Village Council also owns the land at Diamond Point where the PLP wants to build a port on Cook Inlet.
In fact, said Christina Salmon, a board member of the Igiugig Village Council and environmental manager for Iliaska Environmental LLC, an IVC subsidiary, Pebble has not even reached out to the council to try to negotiate an agreement. Current plans are for a subsidiary of BBNC in partnership with a wholly owned subsidiary of the Igiugig Village Council, to establish a rock quarry, with large rock to be used for shoreline protection and breakwaters, she said.