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Supporters, opponents of Pebble Project react to Dunleavy appeal announcement

State had not yet filed as of Friday night, according to governor’s office
Published: Jan. 9, 2021 at 12:19 PM AKST
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Gov. Mike Dunleavy will intercede in response to a failed Clean Water Act permit application submitted by the Pebble Partnership, according to a statement from his office Friday evening, triggering scathing reaction from opponents of Pebble’s proposed mine.

The Dunleavy Administration said it will file an administrative appeal of the federal decision by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to deny the permit for the development of the proposed Pebble Mine, a conclusion published last November that included a letter from the USACE saying it had thoroughly evaluated the benefits of the project in consideration with “reasonably foreseeable detriments,” and found the project to be contrary to public interest. The permit itself is one that is required under the CWA for any natural resource development projects to move forward.

[RELATED: With permit for mine denied, Pebble readies appeal while opponents push for permanent protections]

“We have to prevent a federal agency – in this instance, the Alaska District of the Army Corps of Engineers – from using the regulatory process to effectively prevent the State from fulfilling a constitutional mandate to develop its natural resources,” Dunleavy said in the prepared statement, while claiming in the same release the decision by the USACE was “flawed” and “usurped the entire public interest review process.”

“[This] creates a dangerous precedent that will undoubtedly harm Alaska’s future,” he continued, “and any potential project can fall victim to the same questionable standards.”

Pebble Partnership Spokesman Mike Heatwole said Friday evening that his organization is pleased the state has decided to take what he called a “proactive step” in the federal permitting process as the group seeks approval for its open-pit gold and copper mine in the Bristol Bay Region of Alaska, an area known for its strong salmon runs and cultural history.

“We view many problems with it,” Heatwole said of the USACE decision to deny the permit, “specifically, within the views of the Corps on the wetlands mitigation and the public interest review, and have stated we wanted to basically take the full amount of that appeal window because there’s a lot of technical information. And we want to make sure we bring forward a very solid appeal package.”

Heatwole added that the Pebble Partnership did not specifically request that the governor or state become part of the appeal process and that the company intends to file its own appeal.

“There’s a lot of policy implications that come with the Corps’ decision,” Heatwole said. “This is ultimately on State of Alaska land, and as the landowner and real beneficiary for development at Pebble, they want to have an opportunity to have a greater participation within that decision process.”

While supporters said they consider the appeal a “great step forward for the permitting process,” opponents of the move expressed exasperation and irritation over the governor’s doubling down on the proposed project.

“I feel anger, frustration, disappointment,” said Michael Friccero, who said he is a 40-year veteran of the Bristol Bay fisheries and a 50-year resident of the area. “Basically, just wondering what they’re thinking?”

“Not only is it on the wrong side of the people of Alaska,” he continued, “but it’s also probably a waste of time and money – the state’s money and taxpayers’ money – when there isn’t a more rigorous process than the Army Corps’ process.”

The USACE, which regulates placer mining activity under Section 404 of the Clean Water Act, utilizes a permitting process that takes into consideration a wide breadth of groups, including federal, state, and local agencies; various interest groups; and the general public. Pebble submitted the first of its several applications for the mine to the USACE in December of 2017.

Objections to Dunleavy’s announcement came in the form of press releases from various advocacy groups as well, including from Trout Unlimited Director Nelli Williams, who wrote that the term “flawed” – which the governor included in his comments referencing the USACE process – can “only be used to describe the Dunleavy Administration’s logic.”

[RELATED: Undercover Hong Kong ‘investors’ dupe Pebble Mine execs, share private meetings describing political influence, vision for 180-year mine]

“At every turn,” she wrote, “Alaskans have made clear that developing the Pebble deposit is a risk they’re unwilling to take. This appeal just goes to show Gov. Dunleavy has lost sight of Alaska’s best interests and is out of touch with the people he’s supposed to represent.”

Leaders of the statewide salmon preservation group SalmonState echoed Williams’ sentiments, saying in an email that, “While science prevailed when the Army Corps rejected the proposed Pebble Mine’s Clean Water Act permit, Governor Mike Dunleavy’s continued interference on behalf of the Pebble Partnership shows Bristol Bay is far from safe [...] the governor has chosen to ignore scientific fact and the large majority of Alaskans.”

As for the mission taken up by those against the massive project, that battle remains ongoing and won’t be ending anytime soon. Several groups pointed to an Environment Protection Agency veto and urged Congress and the incoming Biden Administration to reenact lasting protections for Bristol Bay.

“I think a lot of us were starting to think, well, jeez, we can actually start to spend a lot of our horsepower and our capacity and gun powder on doing positive creative development out here in the region,” said Norm Van Vactor, Bristol Bay Economic Development Corporation CEO, “but here we are again.”

Van Vactor also pointed to the stock price of Northern Dynasty Minerals, Pebble’s parent company, as an indicator of struggles the development group is facing overall. The stock on Thursday night sat at $0.37. Over the past year, the 52-week high for shares was $2.49. On Nov. 25, 2020, when the USACE made its announcement that it was denying Pebble the required permit, the stock’s closing price halved, going from $0.80 at the previous bell to $0.40 that night, and hasn’t risen past $0.41 since.

However, Heatwole said he does not view the company’s market performance as the best gauge of its success.

“The better thing to look at is what assets the company has in order to keep the doors open and operational, if you will,” he said. “We’re in an okay financial position to continue to do the work we think is necessary with these next steps with the project.”

As Pebble’s supporters fight for the development plans to stay alive, its opponents say they remain ready to make sure those same plans don’t come to fruition.

“Are we surprised they’d do something like this? No,” Van Vactor said. “Will there be other challenges? Yes. Are we prepared to take them on? Absolutely.”

The press release disseminated Friday by the governor’s office included his first statement on the project since the permit was denied. A member of the governor’s communications team said neither he nor anyone in his office could provide an interview at this time, as they are awaiting formal filing of the appeal later this month.

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