Corps releases draft EIS for Pebble

  • Pebble Limited Partnership spokesman Mike Heatwole is seen overlooking the main ore body deposit at the proposed mine site in Southwestern Alaska. After years of controversy and lawsuits, the Army Corps of Engineers has released the draft environmental impact statement for public review. (Photo/Andrew Jensen/AJOC)

Alaskans interested in the future of the Pebble mine project should get their reading glasses ready.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is asking for feedback on its approximately 1,400-page draft environmental impact statement, or EIS, released Feb. 20 for the Pebble project. A 90-day public comment period begins March 1.

Opponents of the mine contend the Corps limited its focus to environmental impacts at the mine site and ignored potential downstream effects, particularly to fisheries.

To the contrary, Pebble Limited Partnership CEO Tom Collier said the company didn’t identify any major data gaps or substantive impacts that couldn’t be addressed in the draft document.

“We see no significant environmental challenges that would preclude the project from getting a permit and this shows Alaska stakeholders that there is a clear path forward for this project that could potentially generate significant economic activity, tax revenue and thousands of jobs,” Collier said in a formal statement.

Pebble estimates the project will generate about 2,000 jobs during its four-year construction and about 850 full-time positions over its 20-year life.

“We have stated that the project must coexist with the important salmon fishery in the region and we believe we will not harm the fish and water resources in Bristol Bay. Now we have a science-based, objective assessment of the project that affirms our work,” Collier continued.

The draft EIS examines Pebble’s proposed project submitted to the Army Corps of Engineers in December 2017. The Corps adjudicates Clean Water Act Section 404 wetlands fill permit applications on behalf of the Environmental Protection Agency and the size of the Pebble project triggered a full EIS review under the National Environmental Policy Act.

While the plan is scaled back from previous mine concepts, the overall project would still stretch 187 miles from the mine site north of Iliamna Lake to the edge of the Sterling Highway on the southern Kenai Peninsula.

In between would be a natural gas pipeline up to 12 inches wide traversing the Cook Inlet sea floor for 95 miles from the Anchor Point area to a deepwater port at Amakdedori west of Augustine Island.

From there, a two-lane, private road would run 35 miles northwest to a ferry terminal on the south shore of Iliamna Lake. An ice-breaking ferry would then shuttle materials 18 miles across roughly the midpoint of the large Iliamna Lake.

Another 30 miles of industrial road would connect the north ferry terminal near the village of Newhalen with the mine site. The gas pipeline would follow the rest of the transportation corridor to the mine.

According to the EIS, the 8,086-acre Pebble mine site would permanently displace 3,458 acres of wetlands and 73 miles of streams. The site would consist of a large bulk tailings dam and storage facility, a pyritic tailings storage facility, a 270-megawatt power plant, multiple water management ponds and plants and a 608-acre open pit, among other facilities.

It would all support processing of about 1.4 billion tons of mine material during the 20 years of production based on Pebble’s initial plans.

Roughly 100 acres of wetlands would be lost in development of the transportation corridor, according to the EIS.

There would be indirect impacts from fugitive dust and partial dewatering to another approximately 1,900 to 2,100 acres of wetlands depending on which development alternatives are chosen for the final project, according to the document.

Alternative construction options beyond Pebble’s proposal include a more northerly ferry and pipeline route across Iliamna to Pile Bay at the far east end of the lake with a corresponding deepwater port at Diamond Point near Williamsport instead of Amakdedori to the south.

Summer-only ferry operations are also considered and would require additional storage at the mine for metal concentrates, fuel and general goods. Residents around the lake have raised concerns that a year-round ferry could disrupt winter travel across the lake ice.

Another transportation alternative would eliminate the ferry altogether and instead calls for an 82-mile road around the north and east portions of Iliamna to the Diamond Point port.

Pedro Bay Corp., which owns much of the land north and east of Iliamna Lake, issued a statement Feb. 22 saying the Native village corporation continues to oppose Pebble and recently rejected a right-of-way agreement for a transportation corridor across its land.

Additionally, Bristol Bay Native Corp. owns subsurface rights to lands owned by area village corporations and executives have told the Journal the regional corporation may use its subsurface title to try and prevent Pebble from burying a pipeline or developing gravel quarries to build roads across village corporation lands.

Alaska Peninsula Corp. owns lands south of Iliamna Lake and has a surface access agreement with Pebble.

Shane McCoy, the Corps’ manager for the Pebble EIS, said in a conference call with reporters that the EPA suggested a concentrate pipeline along the north road right-of-way.

The pipeline would eliminate copper-gold concentrate trucking, but 18 round trips per day between the mine and port would still be needed to haul molybdenum concentrate, fuel and other goods. The pipeline alternative also considers a second pipeline to send concentrate slurry water back to the mine for reuse.

McCoy said he is not aware of other specific mines that employ lengthy concentrate pipelines but he was told the concept is in use elsewhere.

The only significant change considered at the mine site is constructing a bulk tailings dam with the downstream buttress method, which is generally considered to be more stable and requires more material than the common centerline method Pebble has proposed.

Corps officials note the state Department of Natural Resources is in charge of reviewing Pebble’s dam designs when the company applies for its state permits.

Dry stack tailings storage — which would eliminate the risk of a bulk tailings dam failure — was discounted early in the evaluation because Pebble’s proposed mining operation would be about four times larger than the largest mine using the dry stack tailings method. It involves filtering water out of the bulk tailings until the material is 75 to 85 percent solid and “soil-like,” according to an appendix of the EIS.

“(The dry stack) option would greatly complicate the logistics of the milling operation to include frequent clogging of filters, the need for an emergency storage (tailings storage facility) when the filter plant is down for maintenance, and the large number of personnel and equipment needed to transport and place the filtered tails. The option is not practicable,” the document states.

Time to comment

Critics of the Corps’ process contend the agency is rushing its evaluation of Pebble to fall within the four-year timeframe — starting in May 2017 — before the EPA can revisit its authority to “veto” the project. Those were the main parameters of a 2017 settlement between Pebble and the EPA that resolved a lawsuit the company filed against the agency in 2014.

Former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt declined to finalize rescinding the proposed Pebble “veto” in January 2018; it’s an outstanding issue that must be resolved before the Corps can issue Pebble a Section 404 permit, if it decides to do so.

Jason Metrokin, CEO of Bristol Bay Native Corp., which has led opposition to the project, said in a statement provided to the Journal that the 90-day comment period should be much longer.

“A 270-day comment period on the (draft) EIS is the first — and necessary — step in holding PLP accountable during the permitting process. Bristol Bay cannot become a laboratory to test unproven and unprecedented mining practices,” Metrokin said.

McCoy noted the 90-day comment period is twice the statutorily required 45 days and the Corps released the draft EIS to the public a week before the comment period begins to give interested individuals a head start on reading it.

He said Corps Alaska District officials are discussing the possibility of extending the comment period.

Pebble advocates argue many who are insisting on a longer comment period simply want to delay the EIS process in any way possible.

Metrokin and leaders for Bristol Bay Native Association and Bristol Bay Economic Development Corp. wrote to Army Corps officials Feb. 5 requesting a 270-day draft EIS comment period.

They stressed that Pebble has proposed to increase the amount of material it would mine by 25 percent since first applying for its wetlands permit and “some of the aspects of (Pebble’s) proposal appear to us to be unprecedented in the world of hard rock mining.”

Sen. Dan Sullivan told reporters shortly after the EIS was published that he would likely be making a formal request to the Corps for a longer comment period given the scope and significance of the document.

Sullivan has previously said he would generally like to reform and streamline the NEPA process to prevent unnecessary delays for development projects.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski told the Journal in a Feb. 22 interview that her initial reaction was that the comment period should also be longer than 90 days for similar reasons but she couldn’t specify exactly how long would be appropriate because the EIS had just been released two days prior.

She encouraged Alaskans to take the comment period seriously and said she will meet with Corps officials after having a chance to review the draft EIS herself.

“The expectation of Alaskans and certainly my expectation is that this process that (the Corps of Engineers) is going through has to be rigorous; it has to be thorough; it has to be robust; and anything less than that is just not right and in fairness is just not acceptable,” Murkowski said of the Pebble EIS.

Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected].

Updated: 
02/27/2019 - 10:50am

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