Senators toughen stances against Pebble project

After years of stressing process over policy, Alaska’s U.S. senators have both announced their opposition to development of the Pebble mine.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski made her most definitive statement to-date against the massive Southwest Alaska mine plan Oct. 15 during an address to the Alaska Federation of Natives virtual annual convention, saying there is a need for new economic development in Southwest Alaska and that she plans on working to ensure “longer term protections for the region that can also provide enduring value for Alaskans” in the next Congress that will convene in January.

“I simply think that this is the wrong mine in the wrong place. The administration has said that Pebble cannot be permitted as proposed, and I agree with that,” Murkowski said. “I plan to build on my appropriations language from last year to ensure that the Bristol Bay region remains protected. But while we may have stopped Pebble today, I think now is the time to start thinking about the future.”

Jason Metrokin, CEO of Bristol Bay Native Corp., which has helped lead the opposition to the mine, thanked Murkowski and Sullivan for agreeing Pebble should be stopped.

“BBNC has long-opposed Pebble because the science is clear on the mine’s potential impacts — it would pose a significant risk to our region’s world-class fisheries and our shareholders’ economic livelihoods and subsistence way of life,” Metrokin said in a formal statement. “By stopping this ill-conceived mine, we defend 14,000 sustainable commercial fishing jobs, protect subsistence, and preserve the world’s most prolific wild sockeye salmon runs. Pebble is and always has been the wrong mine in the wrong place. We look forward to continuing to work with our senators to protect Bristol Bay and secure its future.”

Late last year Murkowski added language to the 2020 Interior Department budget bill noting concerns from other state and federal agencies that commented on the draft Pebble environmental impact statement and questioned the veracity of the review.

Murkowski’s spokeswoman Karina Borger highlighted the Interior appropriations language in an email and wrote that “throughout the process, (Murkowski) has continually said the Pebble project must meet a high bar as adverse impacts to the Bristol Bay ecosystem and its world-class salmon fishery are unacceptable.”

Borger could not provide further detail about the senator’s plan for the appropriations process, she wrote.

The hard line against what would be one of the largest resource development projects in the state’s history follows mixed messages from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers — the agency conducting the environmental review — about Pebble’s ability to coexist with the largely untouched ecosystem and currently salmon-dependent economy in the region and the Sept. 21 release of a seemingly damning undercover video that led to the resignation of then-Pebble Partnership CEO Tom Collier.

In the lengthy video, Collier and Ron Thiessen, CEO of Pebble’s parent company Northern Dynasty Minerals Ltd., touted relationships with Gov. Mike Dunleavy and Corps of Engineers Alaska officials that they claimed would benefit mine development to Environmental Investigation Agency personnel posing as potential Pebble investors. The project leaders also claimed to already have plans to expand the mine beyond the proposal submitted to the corps, despite previous claims to the contrary.

According to Pebble, its official 20-year mine plan would employ up to 2,000 workers during construction and 750-1,000 workers during operations.

Corps Alaska District Regulatory Chief David Hobbie wrote to Pebble leaders Aug. 20 that the project would have to come up with a new wetlands mitigation plan to compensate for varying impacts to more than 3,200 acres of wetlands and 184 miles of streams across the mine site and the project’s extensive support infrastructure within 90 days.

The strict mitigation requirements juxtaposed the Corps’ overarching conclusions in the final Pebble environmental impact statement issued in July, which largely states that developing the massive copper and gold deposit would result in “no measurable change” in the numbers of salmon returning to the Nushagak and Kvichak rivers or in the long-term health of the commercial fisheries in the region and was touted by Pebble Partnership upon its release.

The senators both said in statements following the mitigation letter that the project should not be permitted as proposed.

Sullivan has since been more emphatic about Pebble; he said during a live radio interview on Alaska Public Media that the Environmental Protection Agency should use its authority to stop the project if the corps issues a favorable record of decision, or ROD, for the project.

The Pebble ROD could be issued at any time after the company submits its mitigation plan.

Sullivan and Murkowski were extremely critical of the EPA under the Obama administration for proposing in 2014 to prohibit Pebble or other large mines in the area via its authority under Clean Water Act Section 404(c) to override wetlands permit decisions by the corps if the agency deems a project too environmentally damaging.

That was before Pebble had submitted its permit application to the corps, which meant it was not even giving the company a chance to develop a viable plan, the senators and many resource development advocates said, dubbing the move a “preemptive veto” of Pebble.

However, Pebble’s plan is not final yet.

Interim Pebble CEO John Shively wrote in an emailed statement about the senators’ opposition to the mine that the company believes federal permitting should be a scientific and not a political process and the company remains focused on finalizing what it needs to provide the corps for the ROD.

“The (Corps) asked for our final mitigation plan by Nov. 18 and we will meet that deadline. This is our near term focus,” Shively said.

Resource Development Council for Alaska Executive Director Marleanna Hall wrote in an email that without a final mitigation plan or ROD there is nothing for the industry advocacy group to comment on.

Rebecca Logan, CEO of the Alaska Support Industry Alliance, the trade association for mining and oil and gas industry contractors in the state noted in an email that the Alliance has maintained that the permitting process should be followed “no matter what.”

“Because the mitigation plan is not yet final and there is no ROD yet — it is premature to say that the project shouldn’t be built. If we allow the process to be hijacked for one project — it will set a precedent that harms the future of responsible resource development for Alaska,” Logan wrote.

She added that she understands and respects the senators’ decisions to publicly oppose Pebble but that doesn’t mean she agrees with them.

“Sens. Sullivan and Murkowski have been the backbone for resource development in Alaska — and their leadership has allowed us to make great gains in the last four years towards developing our oil, gas and mineral resources,” Logan continued. “Both of them have been strong defenders of the support industry, Alliance members, noting that the Alaskan jobs that accompany resource development are the highest paying jobs in the state and make a significant impact on Alaska’s economy. They both have fought hard in D.C. to protect these Alaskans.”

Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected].

Updated: 
10/21/2020 - 9:08am