Corps to reconsider permit rejection for proposed Pebble mine

A digital simulation showing different
A digital simulation of what the proposed Pebble Mine’s foundation would look like, if federal authorities allow it. (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will reconsider its decision denying a permit for the proposed Pebble Mine.

In 2020, the Army Corps rejected Pebble’s application for a large open-pit gold and copper mine upstream from Bristol Bay. But now the company has partially won its administrative appeal of that decision.

The announcement suggests that one barrier to the controversial mine is not as solid as opponents had hoped.

In an 81-page ruling Tuesday afternoon, the agency’s reviewing officers conclude the Alaska District made a few mistakes, particularly in how it dealt with the possibility of a catastrophic failure of a dam that would contain waste rock from the mining operation. The permit denial was in part based on the potential damage to fish and water quality in the event of a catastrophic dam breach, even though the Army Corps concluded a catastrophic event isn’t “reasonably foreseeable.”

“My decision to remand the permit application denial back to the Alaska District is not a permit authorization,” Gen. Kirk Gibbs, the commander of the Pacific Ocean Division, said in an emailed statement. “The District has been asked to re-evaluate specific issues in the administrative record to ensure that the decision is well-supported.”

Pebble faces other obstacles, beyond the Corps permit. Earlier this year the Environmental Protection Agency, at the urging of tribes and others that fish the salmon-rich waters of Bristol Bay, issued a determination that the mine was incompatible with the Clean Water Act. The EPA decision effectively vetoed any proposal to develop the Pebble deposit that would have a similar impact on the same rivers.

Dennis McLerran, the region’s EPA administrator during the Obama administration, called the Corps’ latest move confusing.

“EPA has now made a final determination. And so in any event, the Corps could not issue a (Clean Water Act) permit for the mine,” he said. “So it is a bit surprising and a bit confusing as to why the Corps entertained the appeal and issued, you know, a remand on it.”

Pebble spokesperson Mike Heatwole said the announcement shows the company’s appeal holds water, and that they aim for the mine to meet environmental requirements for permitting. The company has pursued the project for more than two decades.

This story has been updated with material from KDLG’s Izzy Ross.

Liz Ruskin is the Washington, D.C., correspondent at Alaska Public Media. Reach her Read more about Lizhere.

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