EPA Allows Environmental Review of Alaska Pebble Mine

Published October 11, 2019

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rescinded its Obama-era 2014 decision preventing consideration of the Pebble Mine project near Bristol Bay, Alaska.

The ruling does not permit the mine to be built but allows the environmental review process to begin.

History of Government Roadblocks

Northern Dynasty purchased the Pebble property in 2001 and began site assessments of its mineral potential. The company’s current resource estimate is the mine site contains 57 billion pounds of copper, 71 million ounces of gold, 3.4 billion pounds of molybdenum, 345 million ounces of silver, and currently undetermined amounts of palladium and rhenium.

In 2012, under then-president Barack Obama, EPA issued an assessment of the expected effects of a hypothetical mine near Iliamna, Alaska on salmon populations in Bristol Bay, more than 200 miles away. This was the first time in history EPA issued an assessment before receiving any actual mining proposal.

Northern Dynasty objected to EPA’s assessment, pointing out the assumptions in its hypothetical mining project did not reflect actual technologies the company would deploy at the Pebble site to conduct mining or the steps it would take to guarantee environmental protections.

Subsequently, in 2014, EPA imposed restrictions on the Pebble Mine’s use of certain areas to dispose of waste from the proposed mine and issued a decision blocking the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers from allowing Northern Dynasty to begin the formal permitting process.

Lawsuit, Reversal

Northern Dynasty sued in federal court, arguing the EPA actions did not follow proper procedures. In May 2017, now operating under the Trump administration, the agency settled the lawsuit with the company, allowing it to begin the permitting process. EPA’s latest move in the matter formally rescinds its 2014 determination entirely, allowing Northern Dynasty to begin undertaking an environmental review for consideration by the Army Corps and the EPA.

The EPA is finally following the law, said EPA General Counsel Matthew Z. Leopold in a press release announcing the agency’s decision.

“[The] decision restores the proper process for 404(c) [Clean Water Act] determinations, eliminating a preemptive veto of a hypothetical mine and focusing EPA’s environmental review on an actual project before the Agency,” Leopold said.

‘Assumed the Worst’

EPA’s decision under Obama to prevent the review process from even beginning was unprecedented, says Larry Barsukoff, director of operations for the Alaska Policy Forum.

“Obama’s EPA basically said they were not going allow Northern Dynasty to go through the normal permitting process,” Barsukoff said. “They simply assumed the worst-case scenario about the project and said they would not even look at it.

“Under the Trump administration, we now we have an EPA that says it is going to treat this like any other project,” Barsukoff said. “The standard permitting process companies go through is, if the company is able to successfully show it meets the concerns laid out in the public comment period or any concerns the EPA has, then they have the option of pursuing their project.”

‘A Major Economic Boost’

Mining is one of best-paying industries in Alaska, second only to the oil industry, says Barsukoff.

“The average salary in the oil industry is about $138,000 a year, and the average salary in the mining industry is about $117,000 a year,” Barsukoff said. “So you’re talking about a major economic boost in areas that have never had any real economic activity before.

“The real kicker on this project is the Pebble Mine project is located in an area specifically identified as a mining district,” Barsukoff said. “This area was set aside specifically for resource development, so companies behind the Pebble Mine invested the money to go out and find exactly what was where.”

The project is not located near Bristol Bay and poses no danger to salmon, says Barsukoff.

“The mine site is 250 river miles away from Bristol Bay and 150 air miles away, so you’re talking about a pretty sizable distance,” Barsukoff said.

Unwelcome Outside Influences

Most of the opposition to the Pebble Mine has come from people and groups not based in Alaska, says Jonathan Dehn, Ph.D., a geophysicist and former faculty president at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks.

“The Anti-Pebble Mine groups are very often not based in Alaska,” Dehn said. “They are commonly activists with agendas beyond Alaska who see blocking the Pebble Mine as a means to an end, exploiting Alaska’s challenges for their own purposes.

“For example, the Pride of Bristol Bay gives a phone number in Scranton, Pennsylvania, and the Wild Salmon Center is based in Portland, Oregon,” Dehn said. “It is estimated the Pebble Mine could provide upwards of 1,000 long-term jobs, plus local infrastructure to support the mine, such as a port on Iniskin Bay, which would also benefit the commercial and sport fishing industry, and roads to and from the area. This added infrastructure would help people in an area desperately in need of economic support.”

Not Just Extras

Alaskans are real people with their own aspirations for a better life, not extras in an eco-drama, says Barsukoff.

“I get the impression all these outside eco-extremists and environmentalists, if given the chance, would turn the whole state into a giant eco theme park,” Barsukoff said. “But Alaskans don’t want to be turned into characters living and working in some nature theme park where they are supposed to live on local subsistence, eating food, working, and living in ways dictated by outside interests, looking like we’re just extras in a Patagonia photo shoot.”

Kenneth Artz ([email protected]) writes from Dallas, Texas.

Internet Info

“An Assessment of Potential Mining Impacts on Salmon Ecosystems of Bristol Bay, Alaska,” U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, May 2012: https://heartland.org/publications-resources/publications/an-assessment-of-potential-mining-impacts-on-salmon-ecosystems-of-bristol-bay-alaska-external-peer-review