Mine opponents positioned to block access to Pebble mine after change in 'preferred alternative'

 Pebble transportation alternatives. Courtesy: USACE
Pebble transportation alternatives. Courtesy: USACE (KTUU)
Published: May. 25, 2020 at 3:04 PM AKDT
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The future of the Pebble Mine hinges on a permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and while the decision is not expected until later this summer, the Corps has described the variation of the project it believes would be the least environmentally damaging a possible alternative.

Though there is no major change to the mine site, there is a significant change to the way the mine would be accessed. To complete the new preferred alternative, the Pebble Partnership will have to strike deals with groups with a history of opposing the project.

Previously, the Pebble Partnership wanted to access the deposit by building a port on the west side of Cook Inlet at Amakdedori Point with a 35-mile road to a ferry terminal on the southern shore of Iliamna Lake near Kokhanok. An all season-ice breaking ferry would be used to cross 28 miles to the ferry terminal at New Whalen, with the transportation corridor continuing through the village of Iliamna to the mine site.

In its review, the Corps found that crossing Iliamna Lake was not the “least environmentally damaging practicable alternative,” or LEDPA, and instead, the Northern route along the perimeter of the lake was preferred, David Hobbie, with USACE said Friday. After the Corps informed the Pebble Partnership of the preliminary LEDPA, the Pebble Partnership changed its preferred alternative to what the project’s Draft Environmental Impact Statement labeled Alternative 3.

The key differences between Pebble’s previous preferred alternative and Alternative 3 is that the port on Cook Inlet would be further North, at Diamond Point rather than Amakdedori Point. Instead of crossing the lake, roads and a pipeline would go around the Northern end of Iliamna Lake and to the mine site.

For Pebble, the change means starting over to gain land use rights.

The company had reached

, which owns the land where both ferry terminals on Iliamna Lake would have been built, as well as

, which owns other land needed to access the mine site under the previously preferred alternative.

Now, instead of passing through pockets of support, the company will have to gain access from groups with a history of opposing the project.

The Northern route passes through land owned by Bristol Bay Native Corporation, Pedro Bay Corporation and Igiugig Village Council.

Igiugig Village Council owns the land at Diamond Point where the Pebble Partnership wants to build the port on Cook Inlet.

“"PLP’s plan for Diamond Point presented in the EIS does not fit with our plans for Diamond Point, and should not be considered an acceptable alternative. The Corps continues to disregard our concerns, has failed in their trust responsibility to adequately consult with our tribe, and has not completed thorough analyses of the impacts this project will have on our people. IVC will continue to put the well-being of our people and our future generations first, as we have since time immemorial,” the council said in a statement Monday.

Christina Salmon, a board member on Igiugig Village Council, says Pebble has not yet reached out to to the Council try to negotiate an agreement.

“I never try to get too hopeful, but I’m hoping we can say no to them, and that’s hopeful to us,” Salmon said. “It’s a surprise that this change happened, but I think we’re looking at it as a way that I’m not so worried because we do have control over the land that they're proposing to go through.”

In its comments on the project’s Draft Environmental Impact Statement, Pedro Bay Corporation said Alternative 3 would require Pebble to secure rights from the corporation to 645 acres for road alignment and 273 acres for material sites - uses the corporation would not agree to.

“To be clear, PBC has authority to deny access to its lands, and expressly does so with respect to Alternatives 2 and 3,” Pedro Bay Corporation CEO Matt McDaniel wrote last July. “Those are not alternatives that PBC is willing to consider and they cannot be held out by the Corps as practicable alternatives in the final environmental impact statement. That is the ‘official position of the corporation.’”

Keith Jensen is the president of the Pedro Bay Village Council and a shareholder in Pedro Bay Corporation. Since his village corporation also owns the rights to some of the land Pebble now wants to use, his community has a greater say in the future of the project.

“Their position (PBC) has been opposed to it and as of recently when I spoke to them it has not changed. So yes we do have comfort in that, but there’s always that kind of sinking feeling that that could change,” Jensen said. “I couldn’t put a price on it. I really don’t think I would entertain any number personally, but I’m just one person and not to say that 10, 20 years when I’m gone, if I am gone by then, somebody wouldn’t put a price on it. The lifestyle and the natural resources and what it means to our people is too great to put a price on.”

In an email, Pebble’s spokesperson 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.”

The Army Corps is on track to release the Final Environmental Impact Statement for the project this summer, which a record of the decision coming no sooner than 30 days after.

If Pebble receives the federal permit, it will still need to acquire dozens of state permits, a process Heatwole expects will take about three years.

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