With new life under Trump administration, fresh Pebble Mine details released

A map of the mine plan Pebble Limited Partnership is proposing. (Image courtesy U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)

Now that the Trump administration removed a key roadblock, the Pebble Limited Partnership is chugging through the bureaucratic process needed to get approval to build its mine.

A federal agency Friday said a permit application Pebble filed in late December is complete. The agency released the application publicly on its website.

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It’s a highly technical document with details on what the controversial mine in Southwest Alaska could look like. But so far, nothing in the application is changing opponents’ minds.

In October, Pebble Limited Partnership released some details on how it plans to build a copper and gold mine near Iliamna. Then, the company claimed it was making a series of adjustments to make the mine safer — it promised a smaller mine than the company originally set out to build, for example.

The application the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers released gives a fuller picture of Pebble’s plans. It’s also a pivotal step. Now, the federal environmental review process can begin, which will help agencies decide whether they should approve the mine.

“This is the first big bite of the apple, if you will. And it’s pretty exciting just to at least have some details out there that people can now start to take a look at and say ‘this is how the Pebble team proposes to design and operate a responsible plan for developing the mineral resources at Pebble,” said Mike Heatwole, a spokesman for Pebble Limited Partnership.

The application includes maps of the open pit mine and the 1.1 billion-ton-capacity tailings storage facility. It shows roads the company wants to build to access the mine. The plan calls for a port on the west shore of Cook Inlet, an ice breaking ferry across Lake Iliamna and a natural gas pipeline from the Kenai Peninsula to help power the whole operation. Many details could be adjusted as Pebble continues its work with the government agencies making the decision whether to approve the project.

According to Pebble, the mine itself will have a footprint of nearly 11 square miles. The application states that over a period of two decades, the company aims to mine 1.2 billion tons of material.

None of the fine print is placating groups against the mine in Bristol Bay and beyond.

“The short time we’ve had to review kind of the highlights of this permit application, it confirms every concern we have had for over the last decade,” said Alannah Hurley with the United Tribes of Bristol Bay, one of the mine’s most outspoken opponents.

Hurley pushed back at Pebble’s message that they’re building a smaller mine than originally planned. She pointed out the application shows over 3,000 acres of wetlands and waters must be filled in to build the mine site.

But opponents main response is that they’re worried this plan is just a beginning.

“I think this is a classic bait and switch,” said Tim Bristol, executive director for SalmonState, another group against the project.

Although Bristol said he’s against the mine as it’s laid out in the permit application, he added there’s nothing stopping anyone from pursuing a bigger mine at a later date. But Bristol’s worried this plan could get a green light from government agencies — especially under the Trump administration.

“They’re trying as hard as they can to get this thing into permitting now and I don’t think anyone can doubt the fact that it’s going to be a much more permissive permitting process during this administration than during the last one,” Bristol said.

Under the Obama administration, the Environmental Protection Agency proposed putting restrictions on the mine. But after President Donald Trump took office, EPA reached a settlement with Pebble and the company began moving forward again.

Pebble says if the company wanted to expand the mine in the future, it would have to roll out a new proposal and get new approvals. Heatwole called the immediate negative response to the permit application “unfortunate.”

“To say unequivocally that the mine presents risks that can’t be managed is, I think, premature and prejudicial,” Heatwole said. “It does not allow this objective, third-party, rigorous review process to take a look at all the issues that development presents.”

Pebble also announced it secured a new partner recently, the Canadian company First Quantum Minerals. That partnership will help fund the permitting process, although the companies haven’t yet reached a final deal on funding the actual project.

As the environmental review process moves forward, the Army Corps said it will hold a series of public meetings. The agency said final approval could take several years.

Elizabeth Harball is a reporter with Alaska's Energy Desk, covering Alaska’s oil and gas industry and environmental policy. She is a contributor to the Energy Desk’s Midnight Oil podcast series. Before moving to Alaska in 2016, Harball worked at E&E News in Washington, D.C., where she covered federal and state climate change policy. Originally from Kalispell, Montana, Harball is a graduate of Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

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