The Alaska District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers published today a Notice of Intent to prepare a Draft Environmental Impact Statement that will evaluate the potential social, economic, and environmental impacts of the proposed Pebble Mine.
(Spoiler alert: based on a three-year, twice peer reviewed scientific assessment of the potential mining impacts on the Bristol Bay Watershed conducted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), we already know those impacts will be “significant” and potentially “catastrophic.”)
Pebble Mine is the largest and most contentious mine ever proposed in Alaska. Because if its location at the headwaters of the world’s greatest wild salmon fishery in Bristol Bay, Pebble Mine risks the economic and cultural lifeblood of the region: its salmon. Salmon support a $1.5 billion annual commercial fishery and 14,000 jobs. Salmon have also supported a subsistence-based way of life for Alaska Natives for over 4,000 years.
It’s no wonder that the mine is opposed by 80 percent of Bristol Bay’s residents and 85 percent of its commercial fishermen—not to mention Alaska tribes and corporations, businesses, sportsmen, chefs, jewelers and conservation groups. The rest of the world is against it too: in 2016, the IUCN World Conservation Congress virtually unanimously adopted a motion opposing the Pebble Mine.
With a project this big—and this controversial—the Army Corps must take the time necessary to properly and adequately assess the proposal, reasonable alternatives, and the full-scope of potential impacts. This means conducting an open and robust permitting process.
If today’s notice is any indication, that will not be the case.
The Army Corps’ permitting schedule is geared more toward fast-tracking Pebble’s permit rather than taking a “hard look” at the project as required by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).
For example, the Army Corps is:
- Restricting the scoping comment period to a mere 30 days. By contrast, the scoping comment periods for three other projects in Alaska for which the Army Corps is the lead permitting agency ranged between 75 to over 100 days.
- Scheduling only a handful of public hearings in the Bristol Bay region—and only one of those in a community downstream of the Pebble Mine site. This departs from the precedent set by EPA, which conducted hearings across Bristol Bay, Anchorage and in the Pacific Northwest before finalizing its Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment.
- Limiting actual public participation at certain hearings. At hearings in Dillingham, Homer, and Anchorage—locations where anti-Pebble sentiment and turn-out is particularly high—”an open microphone forum will not be provided.” While the Army Corps will not allow the public an opportunity to speak, it will afford the Pebble Limited Partnership an opportunity to show a video.
- Rushing to complete the entire permitting process in less than two years— shorter than any other large-scale development project in Alaska. Based on the Army Corps’ current timeline, Pebble could have its permit by early 2020.
The Army Corps is racing ahead despite a formal request from Bristol Bay leaders—including the Bristol Bay Native Corporation, Bristol Bay Native Association, United Tribes of Bristol Bay, Nunamta Aulukestai, and Bristol Bay Economic Development Corporation—not to initiate the NEPA process until after Pebble presents sufficient environmental baseline and economic data that would enable the Army Corps – and the public—to properly evaluate the project.
Bristol Bay leaders are joined by Alaska House Speaker Bryce Edgmon, the Alaska Department of Natural Resources, and the Pacific Seafood Processors Association asking the Army Corps to extend the comment period to 120 days, to include public hearings throughout the Bristol Bay region and the Pacific Northwest, and to allow meaningful public participation.
If the Army Corps is truly committed to an “open” and “transparent” process, then it should slow down now and respond to the requests for additional time, outreach, and public engagement.
Taryn Kiekow Heimer is Deputy Director of NRDC’s Marine Mammal Protection Project, Nature Program.