Hawaii & Alaska
Mike Dunleavy, Alaska's recently elected governor. Image is from a campaign commercial.

Alaska gives federal agency long Pebble Mine to-do list

If you thought the administration of newly elected Alaska governor Mike Dunleavy would use the US Army Corps of Engineers’ (USACE) invitation for comments on its draft environmental impact statement for the proposed Pebble Mine to offer up an unconditional love letter on behalf of the massive copper, gold and molybdenum open pit mine in Bristol Bay, think again.

The state’s Office of Project Management and Permitting (OPMP) instead coordinated with seven state agencies, including the Department of Natural Resources, to submit a tedious 96-page to-do list for the federal agency to satisfy. OPMP’s cover letter offers no opinions about whether the project, which commercial harvesters and others fear will imperil the world’s largest sockeye salmon population, is a positive or negative development.

The letter requests details, for example, about pipeline trenching plans and soil erosion, as well as the contents of drilling muds, the likelihood of turbidity in streams and the potential impact on the lodging industry. It asks for the possible effects on fish from a concentrated spill of metal-laden sediment.

“Although much of the information the state has provided the USACE previously has been incorporated into the DEIS, further work is necessary to ensure potential effects to the human environment from each alternative are adequately evaluated and described in the [final environmental impact statement],” the letter, signed by Kyle Moselle, OPMP’s associate director, wrote.

The letter from the Dunleavy administration was one of an astounding 94,366 received by USACE before it closed its comment period on July 1. It was expected to be considerably more upbeat about the mine, given other recent actions by the state.

While his Democratic and Independent competitors came out strongly against the mine during the 2018 gubernatorial race, Dunleavy seemed undecided, saying frequently that the state needs to make a decision based on studies and its previously followed regulatory process.

The governor’s office seemed to be maintaining a similar undeclared position in a statement sent by his press office late last week to Undercurrent.

“Governor Dunleavy has said that like all natural resource development projects he would like to see the Pebble project follow the established permitting process,” the statement says. “He says the outcome of that process will ultimately determine if the project meets the standards set forward in law and regulation. …

"More broadly, the governor’s position on resource development continues to be that we should take care of our environment while responsibly seizing opportunities here in Alaska," the statement continues. "Rather than developing minerals across the globe–in locations with little to no environmental safeguards, we should be doing our part here to allow Alaska resources to move safely to market.”

Does Dunleavy have Trump's ear?

However, other moves by the governor make his support for Pebble Mine much more evident. In one of his first actions after taking office, for example, he appointed Jason Brune to serve as the new commissioner of the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation. Brune, who was CC’d by Moselle in his comments to USACE, previously served as a public and government affairs officer in support of Pebble for 10 months in 2014.

Also, each time Donald Trump has stopped in Alaska on his many flights to Asia, Dunleavy is believed to have used his brief meetings with the US president to lobby him on several issues, including reducing federal barriers that block Pebble Mine.

One of those barriers includes a proposed 2014  determination by the Barack Obama administration’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to add upfront Clean Water Act 404( c)-related protections for Bristol Bay against mining or any other project that might damage natural resources. The measure was sought by the federal agency following a three-year, twice-peer reviewed study analyzing the watershed and the potential effects of large-scale mining.

Former EPA administrator Scott Pruitt had proposed withdrawing the restrictions in 2017, but backed off after receiving more than one million comments.

In a March 1 letter signed by Dunleavy himself, the governor’s office advised Trump: “Natural resource development in Alaska is handicapped due to the EPA’s failure to officially announce that a preemptive Clean Water Act 404 veto is not going to be used anywhere in the state. The Pebble Mine project is the poster child, but every potential investor must evaluate whether that preemptive veto could be used against their project; which results in a serious brake that chills potential resource development opportunies.”

It's not clear how much influence Dunleavy’s request has had on the Trump administration, however, on June 26, as reported by Undercurrent, the EPA’s general counsel directed its Region 10 office to resume efforts to withdraw the determination.

EPA regional office challenges Army Corps

For the long list of mine opponents who responded to USACE's comment period, the DEIS is a critical first battle in advance of the the mine receiving the permits needed to dig a 6,500 foot long, 5,500 foot wide and up to 1,750 foot deep pit just north of Lake Iliamna at the headwaters of the Nushagak and Kvichak rivers.

Other permits and DEISs will be required as the project is expanded, but this one is especially important as it lays down the track for the others to follow, explained Nelli Williams, Alaska director of Trout Unlimited (TU), a group that counts some 300,000 recreational fishermen and others in its membership and is one of many opponents to the mine.

Williams told Undercurrent that it’s her belief that the mine is being raced to the finish line in roughly two years, though USACE would normally take more like five to seven years to process such a large and controversial undertaking.

Not every action taken by the EPA and other federal agencies within the Trump administration, however, has been positive for the mine.

In one lengthy 115-page comment to USACE , released last week, the EPA Region 10 office said the DEIS lacks important information and likely underestimates the risk to water quality and fish habitat in the Bristol Bay watershed. Then, in a second, 60-page document, the same office warned that the project “may have substantial and unacceptable adverse impacts on fisheries resources in the project area watersheds, which are aquatic resources of national importance.”

Both documents were made available by Alaska Public Radio.

Norm Van Vactor, CEO of the Bristol Bay Economic Development Corporation and a longtime fisherman from Dillingham, Alaska, told Undercurrent that it was the response he was hoping for from the EPA office, though he had worried agency scientists might be silenced.

“I was hopeful and believed that the facts and science would speak for itself,” he said.

Similarly, on July 1, the US Department of the Interior and several cooperating agencies, including the US Fish and Wildlife Service, National Park Service and Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, submitted an 81-page letter requesting the Army Corps substantially revise its DEIS.

As far as government comment letters go, some of the criticism is scathing.

“After thorough review, we believe the DEIS has major outstanding issues related to an overreliance on qualitative, subjective, and unsupported conclusions," the DOI letter advises. "There are also instances where the USACE failed to conduct or include important analyses and where effects are minimized or dismissed as not being 'measurable' without providing the measurement types or measurable variability used. Based on these identified deficiencies, the DEIS is so inadequate that it precludes meaningful analysis."

Contact the author jason.huffman@undercurrentnews.com

See Undercurrent article . . .