The Pebble Mine Project Hearing: Process and Potential Impacts
Published & Edited By MARY KAUFFMAN
October 30, 2019
Collier said the Democrat-controlled committee invited six Pebble critics to appear as witnesses at the hearing, including paid activists and consultants, as well as himself. The CEO of Northern Dynasty's 100%-owned US subsidiary said it is clear that sworn opponents of the project are alarmed at the steady progress Pebble continues to make toward a Final EIS and Record of Decision from the US Army Corps of Engineers .
"With the publication of an overwhelmingly positive Draft EIS in February, the formal withdrawal of the Obama Administration's unprecedented 404(c) Proposed Determination in July, and our inexorable progress toward a Final EIS and ROD in the first half of 2020, people are starting to understand that Pebble is a project of merit," Collier said. "We've known for some time that our project will meet and surpass the rigorous environmental standards enforced in the United States and Alaska, and believe that it will secure its operating permits. Our critics are starting to understand that as well," he said.
According to Collier, members of the subcommittee split along partisan lines, with Republicans objecting to Congress interfering with the administration of regulatory due process for the Pebble Project.
"We are wading into a project and an issue that is currently in the middle of a comprehensive review under the National Environmental Policy Act ("NEPA")," said Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-ARK), Ranking Member of the subcommittee.
Westerman said, "I…believe in proper regulatory due process through a fair and objective federal environmental permitting process. I believe in giving an applicant the opportunity to have the Corps of Engineers and the State of Alaska, along with a suite of other federal agencies, review this project objectively on the merits of this permit application."
Given the pendency of the Corps' EIS permitting process for Pebble, Westerman argued the subcommittee's time is better spent on other issues, rather than "a partisan priority currently under review at the federal agency level."
In testimony, Alannah Hurley, Executive Director, United Tribes of Bristol Bay concluded, "One thing is clear, the proposed Pebble mine will have significant and permanent adverse impacts on the extraordinary natural resources of Bristol Bay and our traditional ways of life that are so closely tied to those resources. With so much at stake, the people of Bristol Bay, and all Alaskans, deserve a fair, thorough, and transparent review of the proposed Pebble mine. In contrast, the Corps’ opaque process is moving toward a permit decision at an unprecedented pace, ignoring substantial criticism and concern from Bristol Bay Tribes, other federal agencies, and the public. Under the Corps’ current timeline, it is planning to issue a final EIS in early 2020 and make a permit decision in mid-2020.39 The Corps has made clear that it will not listen to our voices, so we ask this Committee to act now and help us protect Bristol Bay."
In testimony, Dennis McLerran, Esq., Cascadia Law Group concluded, "The Bristol Bay watershed is a uniquely productive and fragile resource. The Pebble Deposit is located directly at the headwaters of the Nushagak and Kvichak Rivers, which produce nearly 50 percent of the salmon in the Bristol Bay system. Mining at the scale planned for Pebble at the extremely sensitive location of the mineral deposit would result in significant harm to the world-class fisheries of the watershed. And, just as importantly, would open the central portion of the watershed to become a mining district with Pebble’s development of road access, a power plant and other mining infrastructure. Northern Dynasty Minerals has aggregated a large area of mining claims beyond the Pebble Deposit and there are many other undeveloped mineral deposits in the unprotected area between Lake Clark National Park and Wood-Tikchik State Park. Loss of one of the world’s last remaining salmon strongholds is simply unacceptable and that is why EPA during my tenure decided to take action to protect Bristol Bay fisheries. The mining proposed at the Pebble Deposit requires a better process of evaluation than what has been done so far under the Corps of Engineers’ Draft EIS. We are spending hundreds of millions of dollars every year in attempts to recover endangered salmon and restore salmon habitat in the Pacific Northwest and California and we should not allow the mistakes of the past to be repeated in Bristol Bay." (Read Dennis McLerran's Full Testimony pdf)
Richard Borden, the owner Midgard Environmental Services concluded his testimony stating, "In my professional opinion, given the site’s sensitive environmental setting and the complexity of the necessary management strategies to ensure its responsible development, the extremely short EIS time lines are insufficient to ensure the selection of technically rigorous and defensible solutions to the range of environmental issues and impacts described above." (Read Richard Borden's Full Testimony pdf)
Brian Kraft, owner of Alaska Sportsmen’s Lodge said in his testimony, "I am not a scientist, but I can tell you that the entire Bristol Bay system is connected and that water flows downhill. The water is the lifeblood of this region. These flowing, moving waters allow life to exist in this region. These salmon runs feed the world. The entire system relies on each part remaining intact. The proposed mine site is critical to salmon and other freshwater species and will be destroyed if this project is built. It can be hard for many of us to understand the importance of the water and habitat to remain in its natural state, functioning perfectly without human interference or destruction. We turn on the water facet and clean water comes out. We can drink it, wash with it, and never even give it a second thought. However, as an elder Alaskan told me as I was building my lodge on the banks of the Kvichak River: “Take care of the water. It is who I am, it is in my soul, it is my survival.” (Read Brian Kraft's Full Testimony pdf)
Kraft stated, "I am here to urge you to look at this issue closely, it is of national importance. The review being conducted by the Army Corps of Engineers is unacceptable. It is a mockery not worthy of the lofty goals of the Act that this Committee oversees and stewards. The stakes are too high to cut corners and a foreign mining company has had far too much influence on a system that is supposed to protect the best interests of Americans. We should be doing everything we can to protect American jobs and existing thriving businesses, not squander them."
Mark Niver a Bristol Bay drift net permit holder testified, "As other salmon fisheries in Alaska face cyclical declines, Bristol Bay’s salmon fishery is more important than ever. In 2018 thanks to its record-high returns, Bristol Bay contributed 38% of Alaska’s entire 2018 salmon harvest and 48% of its total estimated ex-vessel value6. Its abundance allows it to provide financial stability for seafood processors, fishermen, and other businesses and is a pillar for the entire Alaska seafood industry. :
"For over a decade the Pebble Mine has been casting a shadow of uncertainty over my livelihood and Bristol Bay’s entire fishing industry. I first learned about the proposed Pebble Mine in 2006 and the more I learned about the project the more concerned I got. Nowhere in Alaska or the world have we ever had a mine of this type and size located in a place as ecologically sensitive and pristine as Bristol Bay. As the late U.S. Senator Ted Stevens once said, “it is the wrong mine for the wrong place,” said Niver.
Niver said, "It’s extremely troubling that the Trump Administration would push this project forward despite its well-documented risks and despite the 14,000 jobs at stake. Bristol Bay’s salmon fishery is a renewable economic engine, and one that process is the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS). The Army Corps’ DEIS is fatally flawed and fails to accurately portray the ecological impacts that the proposed Pebble project would have on the Bristol Bay watershed and its wild salmon populations. Ultimately, this is because the DEIS is based on a false project scope and duration even though the Army Corps itself says in the DEIS that expansion of the project is “reasonably foreseeable.” In addition, the DEIS downplays many of the direct and indirect impacts outlined in the EPA’s 2014 peer-reviewed Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment, which concluded that “large-scale mining in the Bristol Bay watershed poses significant near- and long- term risk to salmon, wildlife and Native Alaska cultures,” according to former EPA Regional Administrator Dennis McLerram. The discrepancies in the DEIS and the EPA Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment are concerning and raises questions about the scientific integrity of the DEIS." (Read Mark Niver's Full estimony pdf)
Anisa Costa, Chief Sustainability Officer, Tiffany & Co conculed her testimony saying, "However, we can promise we will never use gold from the Pebble Mine should it be developed. The long-term threats to the Bristol Bay region far outweigh the short-term value of any precious metals which might be extracted there." (Read Anisa Costa's Full Testimony pdf)
Although the hearing will have little effect on Pebble's progress through federal permitting, Collier took the opportunity to counter the positions and concerns of those opposed to the project.
Collier commented on the findings of the Corps' Draft EIS saying "For over 15 years, a battle has been fought over whether building a copper mine 200 river miles from Bristol Bay in Alaska would significantly damage the salmon fishery in that region. The debate is now over. In February of this year, the US Army Corps of Engineers issued its draft Environmental Impact Statement for the proposed Pebble mine and unequivocally concluded that the project will not harm the Bristol Bay fishery."
Collier's commented on the US Environmental Protection Agency's ("EPA") decision to withdraw its Proposed Determination saying "Another concern expressed today has been whether EPA withdrawing its preemptive, unprecedented veto – also known as the Proposed Determination – was the correct decision. There can be no question that it was.
Collier said, "First, the entire Proposed Determination was the epitome of bad process – a lack of statutory authorization, no valid scientific record to speak of, and unelected, unaccountable bureaucrats trying to regulate a major economic development project out of existence. The Proposed Determination was also faulty process because it deliberately avoided NEPA and an EIS, which together comprise a superior, time-tested means of evaluating major development projects."
Collier commented on the growing desperation of Pebble opponents saying "One of my fellow panelists today, former EPA Regional Administrator Dennis McLerran, has called Pebble's permit application the 'camel's nose under the tent,' which I suppose means that he believes that Pebble plans on shoehorning in a larger project despite the fact that we have scaled back the footprint in the mine plan currently before the Corps of Engineers. I have several responses.
"First, I believe it shows the level of desperation that the Pebble opposition has reached. Think about it – to oppose this permit application, they are forced to argue that it must in fact be far different than what is actually proposed. In other words, they are struggling to find problems with what is currently pending before the Corps," said Collier.
Collier commented on the key criticisms of Pebble opponents saying "One is that the political fix is in, and that's why we're where we are in the permitting process. The second is the process is being rushed. And the third is the (Draft) EIS is inadequate. And one of the things that's been pointed to repeatedly are the criticisms that have been filed by EPA and by the Department of Interior ("DOI").
"And the point I want to make is that they (EPA and DOI's criticisms) don't support those three points. In fact, they run directly against them. If the political fix is in, why is it that Trump's EPA and Trump's DOI are criticizing the Draft Environmental Impact Statement? It's just absurd and it is an internally inconsistent position to take." said Collier.
Further Collier said, "Second, if this is a rushed process, why are these agencies building speed bumps for the process? I mean that's crazy. And then the third point, and this one is the most important. Now that these criticisms have been put on the table, it is incumbent on the Corps of Engineers to address them and address them thoroughly. And if they don't address them thoroughly, then a court is going to throw this permit right out the door the minute it's issued."
"And so, one of the things that's happened is that the process is in fact working, which was your original point. This is a draft. Criticisms have been put on the table and those criticisms are going to be addressed. And if they aren't addressed, we won't be able to have our permit upheld when the courts reviews," said Collier. (Read Pebble Limited Partnership CEO Tom Collier's Full Testimony pdf)
In expressing his support for the Pebble EIS permitting process, Rep. Don Young (R-AK) reminded subcommittee members that the State of Alaska has encouraged investment in mineral exploration and development at Pebble.
Young said, "And people forget, Madam Chair, that this is state land," Young said. "This is not federal land. The State of Alaska had the right to choose 103 million acres of land and they chose this land. And they put it up for (mineral) discovery and it was discovered. And under the discovery clause, you have a right for exploration. On the right for exploration, you have a right for development if you go to the permitting process."
Since the conclusion of the subcommittee hearing last week, there have been further signals the Corps and the EPA continue to work together constructively on the Pebble EIS. On October 25, 2019, the Corps granted EPA a requested extension to the date by which it must decide whether to 'elevate' its consideration of the Pebble EIS from EPA Region 10 to EPA Headquarters in Washington DC under Section 404(q) of the Clean Water Act.
"The EIS process for Pebble, including the collaboration of multiple government agencies, is working as it should," Collier concluded.
"We have every reason to believe progress will continue, that the Corps will deliver a final EIS and positive Record of Decision on time next year, and that its process and decisions will withstand any subsequent legal challenge. I think our increasingly anxious opponents believe that to be the case as well," said Collier
On the Web:
Full Testimony By Witnesses:
Source of News:
Oct 23 Hearing: Committee on Transportation: Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment