At a time when nothing feels normal, we can take comfort in natural phenomena unaffected by stay-at-home orders or social distancing. Seattle-based fishing boats are gearing up and heading to Bristol Bay, Alaska, for one of nature’s great migrations: The largest remaining wild sockeye salmon run, with 40 million to 60 million adults returning to their upriver spawning grounds. But looming over Bristol Bay is the specter of the Pebble Mine: A massive open-pit copper mine proposed in the bay’s headwaters, in a pristine area covered with wetlands, streams and shallow ponds.
The Pebble Limited Partnership is a Canadian corporation that has been proposing to mine this deposit for nearly two decades so it could sell the ore to smelters in Asia. The Environmental Protection Agency initiated an intensive analysis in 2011 and concluded that the environmental impacts of such a mine would be unacceptable, and it proposed protections for salmon that would preclude the Pebble Mine. However, the Trump administration’s EPA withdrew its proposed salmon protections, and since then, the Alaska District of the Army Corps of Engineers has fast-tracked this project unlike anything I’ve seen in more than 40 years of wetlands regulatory work.
The present proposal is artificially so small it’s likely infeasible economically, given PLP’s claim that mining would stop in 20 years after exploiting only 9% of the recoverable ore. Almost no one believes this proposal is genuine. Rather, it seems designed expressly for the purpose of getting a “starter permit” from the Corps with which to attract partners. PLP has told potential investors that mining could continue for 200 years.
Even the 20-year mine would generate more than a billion tons of mine waste and permanently destroy or degrade more than 4,200 acres of pristine wetlands, including more than 100 miles of rivers and streams.
Under federal permitting rules, PLP should offset these impacts by creating, restoring or preserving an equal or greater area of wetland and stream habitat, ideally within the same drainage. But after promising EPA’s Inspector General in 2012 that it could easily fully offset such impacts for a larger mine than it now proposes, PLP has returned in 2020 almost empty-handed.
First, PLP would pay for one-time upgrades of sewage treatment facilities in three small villages, whose combined waste stream is about 1% of what PLP’s 20-year mine would have to treat. There is no evidence that these village facilities are causing significant pollution, or that the villages would allow PLP to upgrade them, given local opposition to the mine.
Second, PLP would clear debris from an 8-mile stretch of beach, 60 miles away on Cook Inlet. Why? Trash and debris can be harmful to fish or wildlife if they ingest it or get entangled, so PLP actually expects to receive habitat replacement credit for trash removal. Again, there is no evidence that debris on this remote beach has caused any measurable fish or wildlife losses.
Third, PLP would replace culverts at a handful of road crossings to improve fish passage, although the closest culverts it identifies are more than 90 miles away. Even if successful, the new culverts would increase fish access to less than 10 total miles of already existing streams, not even beginning to make a dent in offsetting stream losses at the mine.
Bottom line: PLP proposes zero mitigation acres to offset its immense impacts to wetland and aquatic habitats that help support a fishery valued at $1.2 billion annually that directly employs 14,800 people.
In my years at the agency, EPA would have rejected these proposals out-of-hand, as would the Corps; that should have happened already. Instead, the Alaska Corps appears in a rush to issue a permit before the November election.
Last fall, Congress added language to the budget bill that “adverse impacts to Alaska’s world class salmon fishery and the Bristol Bay ecosystem are unacceptable.” Washington state’s U.S. Sens. Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray have long been supportive of Bristol Bay salmon, but PLP’s mitigation facade makes it clear that more action is needed.
The Clean Water Act requires projects like this be denied if there are any feasible alternatives that achieve the same purpose with less environmental harm. I can’t imagine a proposed copper mine that would have greater harm than the Pebble Mine. With the livelihoods and natural resources at stake, this is the last place that should ever qualify for a permit to mine copper.
For those who want to help protect Bristol Bay, please send your concerns about the Pebble Mine to the EPA regional administrator, Chris Hladick in Seattle (firstname.lastname@example.org,) and Sens. Murray and Cantwell.
A previous version of this Op-Ed published online on May 17, 2020, was corrected on May 21, 2020. The photographer who captured the image of the brown bear is Ken Morrish. The early version erroneously credited Fly Out Media.