The Dividing Mine, Part I: Alaskans grapple with Pebble Mine permitting process

Published: Aug. 7, 2019 at 12:58 PM AKDT
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The question of whether the Pebble Mine can or cannot be developed in the headwaters of the world's most productive sockeye salmon fishery without substantial harm the ecosystem divides Alaskans.

Critics say the risk is too great. Advocates say the area needs jobs and a modern economy to keep villages alive.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is in the process of evaluating an application for a permit under the Clean Water Act Section 404 by the Pebble Partnership to develop an 8,000-acre mine site in the Bristol Bay watershed.

To operate in the remote area, the Pebble Partnership's proposal includes building 77 miles of roads, a ferry crossing 18 miles of Iliamna Lake, a port on the western shore of the Cook Inlet and a natural gas pipeline running from the Kenai Peninsula under the Cook Inlet and across Iliamna Lake to the project site.

A map showing the proposed transportation corridors from the USACE environmental impact statement.

Waste from the mine would be stored in an approximate 2,800 acre facility for bulk tailings and approximately 1,000-acre facility for pyritic tailings.

The USACE released its

in February. The final environmental impact statement is expected in early 2020 and a decision on the project is expected in mid-2020. The USACE may either issue the permit, issue the permit with conditions, or deny the application outright.

The USACE is the agency responsible for making the decision on whether or not to issue Section 404 permits and is also responsible for enforcement. However, the EPA has

, meaning it can block a project at a specific site in which the disposal of dredged or fill material will have "unacceptable adverse effects on municipal water supplies, shellfish beds and fishery areas, wildlife, or recreational areas." The EPA has the authority under the Clean Water Act, Section 404 (c) to exercise that veto authority before a permit is applied for, while an application is pending, or after a permit has been issued.

On July 30, the EPA withdrew its 2014 proposed determination, which preemptively vetoed mining the Pebble deposit. The move reignited passions on both sides of the project.

“The logic behind the EPA’s action looks like it was written by the Pebble Limited Partnership, so it inspired zero confidence that we’re dealing with an agency who’s going to give this the fair, thorough look it warrants,” said Alannah Hurley, Executive Director of United Tribes of Bristol Bay. “We’re talking about what could be one of the largest gold mines on the face of the planet at the headwaters of our fishery. The last great sockeye salmon fishery in the world that sustains not only our people, but feeds over half the world. We supply over half the world’s salmon at this point. Why would you ever risk that?”

Allanah Hurley of the United Tribes of Bristol Bay says she thinks that EPA is playing politics with an area that is culturally and ecologically important to Yupik people.

The decision came a month and a half after officials from the EPA, including general counsel Matt Leopold, visited Bristol Bay. Hurley says that in discussions with the EPA, United Tribes asked for consultation and public comment before and withdrawal of the proposed determination.

“That was completely behind closed doors and a complete surprise, and what we’re learning was a result of Gov. Dunleavy administration and not listening to the people of Bristol Bay or the scientific or the overwhelming record with over a million people throughout the U.S. supporting the finalization of these protection,” Hurley said.

Hurley is not alone in categorizing the EPA’s decision as a political move, but to some it wasn’t a surprise.

In a letter to President Trump dated March 1, Gov. Mike Dunleavy claimed that natural resource development in the state is handicapped due to the EPA’s “failure to announce that a preemptive Clean Water Act 404 veto is not going to be used anywhere in the state.” The governor also wrote concerning the Waters of the United States Rule claiming that USACE and EPA have a “long history of misinterpreting the Clean Water Act to give themselves more and more power.” The governor added, “I understand that people are concerned about the disappearing wetlands in the Lower 48; but, we don’t have that problem in Alaska. We are a young state, with tremendous undeveloped resource potential that could be of great benefit to our country’s energy security.”

“I think a lot of us, some of us at least, thought that with a new administration in Washington DC a year and a half ago that this could have easily have happened back then,” said Norm Van Vactor, CEO of the Bristol Bay Economic Development Corporation.

In Iliamna, some Pebble supporters welcomed the EPA’s decision.

The village of Iliamna, population 109, stands to gain more jobs than there currently are people in the village.

The village sits about 17 miles south of the Pebble deposit and it is over 100 miles through the air to the ocean. Although Iliamna Lake and the surrounding rivers are important for the diversity of the Bristol Bay watershed, some residents feel disconnected from the fishing towns closer to sea. Additionally, the high cost of living in the village has prompted more people to move to regional hubs like Dillingham, Homer or Anchorage.

“They have commercial fishing, they have all the Bristol Bay Health Corporation, the Bristol Bay Native Corporation, the Bristol Bay Economic Development Corporation, the Bristol Bay Housing Authority. Those are all jobs that they can have and that people can apply to in Dillingham. We don’t have those opportunities here. We have a village council. They have a few jobs there. We have a school, a couple of jobs there. The post office, one or two jobs. And there’s not very many other jobs,” Lisa Reimers said.

Reimers' family fished commercial until a drop in fish prices meant she could not support her family. Her parents diversified their income by building a bed and breakfast which Reimers and her sister now run. The business also caters for the Pebble Partnership.

“Iliamna is a beautiful place. It just does not have a sustainable economy. If everybody had a job or had a project like Pebble and could live here, it’d be a great place to live and raise your kids because you’d be able to afford it,” Reimers said.

Many residents of smaller villages come to the regional hub of Dillingham to find work.

Reimers and other Pebble supporters in Iliamna believe that the mine can be operated in a way that does not harm the ecosystem salmon are a part of.

“We’ve been around Pebble and we’ve seen the environmental work that they have done out here. We’ve actually flown out with them, we look at what they’re doing, the studies they’re doing on the land and the water and the fish. So we believe that they’re doing a good job before a mine’s even built to make sure they have safe measures in place to coexist with fishing and mining,” Reimers said.

Reimers cheered the EPA’s decision to withdraw the preemptive veto.

“I felt like we’ve always been the underdogs and that everybody always looks at us like we’re the evil people that want something to happen that’s good for the area, and the people in this area actually want to see the economy, the state, the State of Alaska to actually have an economy that would help everyone,” Reimers said.

Although Reimers and the Pebble Partnership see the EPA withdrawing the preemptive veto as a step forward, others, including Sen. Lisa Murkowski are still skeptical the project meets the requirements for a permit.

Watch KTUU Channel 2 at 6 p.m. Thursday for the next steps for the project, and the gaps that Sen. Murkowski says the Pebble Partnership still has to overcome.

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