What to watch for as Pebble Mine permitting process picks up
After more than a decade of on-again, off-again developments, the Pebble Limited Partnership is only months away from knowing if it will be granted an essential permit to develop its gold, copper and molybdenum mine in Southwest Alaska. As the timeline shortens, developments are picking up at a rapid pace.
This week a complaint alleging insider trading has been filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission against Pebble’s parent company, the EPA faces an important deadline, and a congressional subcommittee will hear testimony from several stakeholders in the project.
Wednesday morning, seven witnesses are scheduled to testify before the U.S. House Transportation Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment. Aside from Pebble Partnership CEO Tom Collier, all other witnesses have been critical of the proposed project.
Thursday is the deadline for the EPA to notify the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers whether it believes the proposed mine will have a “substantial and unacceptable impact on aquatic resources of national importance.” However, regardless of the EPA’s input, the decision to issue a permit still rests with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Here's what you need to know about the upcoming developments in the permitting process.
Monday, an attorney representing Washington, D.C. based environmental activist group Earthworks sent a letter to the New Jersey Bureau of Securities, the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority and the Securities and Exchange Commission requesting an investigation into insider trading within Pebble’s parent company, Northern Dynasty Minerals Ltd.
The complaint alleges that investors were given knowledge that was not public before the EPA announced it would reconsider 2014 protections for Bristol Bay that blocked the Pebble deposit from being developed and used that knowledge to make trades. CNN first reported the accusations.
In a statement to Channel 2, a spokesperson for the company said, “Northern Dynasty Minerals Ltd. has viewed last night’s report on CNN, and unequivocally rejects all of the claims and insinuations contained within it as baseless and unfounded.”
Wednesday at 6 a.m. AKDT, seven witnesses are scheduled to testify before members of Congress in a hearing titled “The Pebble Mine Project: Process and Potential Impacts.”
Among the witnesses are former EPA Region 10 Administrator Dennis McLerran. It was on his watch that the EPA completed the 2014 Bristol Bay watershed assessment and issued the 2014 proposed determination, effectively blocking the mine from being developed.
Pebble Partnership CEO Tom Collier will also testify. In interviews with Channel 2, Collier has maintained that the project is on track and downplayed questions of the adequacy of the Army Corps’ Draft Environmental Impact Statement brought by agencies including the EPA.
In August, Collier told Channel 2, “I don’t know in my career of almost 40 years of permitting I’ve ever seen a more positive, unequivocal draft environmental impact statement.”
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, told Channel 2 in August and has since repeated, that the comments by the EPA, the State of Alaska, the Department of Interior and other agencies raise questions about the mine that have not been resolved and that the project has not yet reached the threshold needed to be issued a permit.
Alaska Rep. Don Young, a Republican, is not on the House Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment. However, Alaskans streaming the hearing can expect at least one of the 32 members on the subcommittee to question Collier on the environmental safety of the project.
Other witnesses include Alannah Hurley, Executive Director of the United Tribes of Bristol. United Tribes of Bristol Bay consists of 15 tribes, representing approximately 80 percent of the region's population.
The organization is one of several groups representing Alaska Native people that filed a lawsuit against the EPA after it withdrew the 2014 proposed determination, claiming that in doing so the agency violated the Clean Water Act and the Administrative Procedure Act.
Both sportfishing and commercial fishing interests will be represented in the hearing. Brian Kraft, who operates lodges in Aleknagik and Igiugig, will speak. Mark Niver, a commercial fisherman, will speak on behalf of his small business, Surrender Salmon Co.
The committee will also hear from a representative from Tiffany & Co. and a former executive at the second-largest mining company in the world.
Tiffany & Co. has been outspoken in its opposition to the project since 2009. Its Chief Sustainability Officer is scheduled to testify.
Richard Borden, now a consultant with Midgard Environmental Energy Services, is a former 23-year employee at mining giant Rio Tinto. Borden stirred controversy this Spring after writing a letter detailing why he believes the Pebble project is not economically viable. Borden told Bloomberg Environment that he was paid by the environmental activist group Natural Resources Defense Council to complete the study, but maintained that he stands by his analysis.
When the hearing begins, it can be streamed
Although the EPA withdrew its 2014 proposed determination that would have blocked the mine from going forward, the agency is still involved in reviewing the permit the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is reviewing.
Thursday marks the deadline for the EPA to respond to the USACE under the Clean Water Act Section 404(q).
The EPA has already determined that the Pebble project
have a “substantial and unacceptable impact on aquatic resources of national importance.” Since July 1, the EPA has been working to determine if the project as proposed
have those impacts.
In a media teleconference in August, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Alaska District Regulatory Division Chief David Hobbie said that regardless of the input the EPA provides on the project via Section 404(q), the decision on whether or not USACE will issue a permit rests solely on Col. Phillip J. Borders, Commander of the Alaska Division of USACE.
However, a different subsection of the Clean Water Act gives the EPA veto authority, meaning the agency can stop the mine from going forward even if the Army Corps grants a permit.
Section 404(c) of the Clean Water Act
to “restrict, prohibit, deny or withdraw the use of an area as a disposal site for dredged or fill material if the discharge if will have unacceptable adverse effects on municipal water supplies, shellfish beds and fishery areas, wildlife, or recreational areas.”
According to the Act, the EPA can exercise that authority before a permit is applied for, while an application is pending, or after a permit has been issued.
In 2014 the EPA issued a proposed determination, or preemptive veto, of a mining project in the area of the Pebble deposit based on hypothetical mining situations.
Although the agency withdrew that proposed determination this summer, the agency still has the authority to veto the specific project put forward by the Pebble Limited Partnership.
According to the timeline presented by USACE, a Final Environmental Impact Statement for the proposed mine should be completed in early 2020 and a Record of Decision will be made in the middle of the year.