Army Corps to revisit parts of Pebble’s application, but opponents say mine can’t move forward

small bodies of water dot the tundra
The proposed Pebble Mine site, pictured in 2014. (Jason Sear/KDLG)

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will reconsider certain aspects of the Pebble company’s permit application to build a large gold and copper mine at the headwaters of Bristol Bay. The 81-page report comes just three months after the Environmental Protection Agency vetoed the mine in a separate process.

“It’s a bit surprising and a bit confusing,” said Dennis McLerran, who worked as the regional EPA administrator during the Obama administration.

The EPA in January determined that the mine would have “unacceptable adverse effects on salmon fishery areas.” Using its powers under the Clean Water Act, it essentially vetoed the mine plan, and any future plan that would have a similar impact on the same waterways. Many opponents of the project hailed that as the final blow.

McLerran said the EPA decision nullifies any permit the Army Corps could issue.

“EPA has now made a final determination, and so in any event, the Corps could not issue a 404 permit for the mine,” he said, referring to the applicable section of the Clean Water Act. “So it is a bit surprising and a bit confusing as to why the Corps entertained the appeal and issued a remand on it.”

At the heart of the Corps’ decision is whether its permit denial adequately assessed certain risks the mine would pose to the environment and its effects on communities in the region. In its April 25 announcement, the Corps’ Pacific Ocean Division Engineer Brig. Gen. Kirk Gibbs said he found specific portions of Pebble’s appeal warranted another look, although he noted that that doesn’t mean the Corps will reauthorize Pebble’s permit.

The report analyzes each of Pebble’s reasons for its appeal. It said that five of the company’s points didn’t need additional consideration, and portions of three did, including the Corps’ assessment of whether and how the project would benefit communities (pg. 47 – 56). The Corps will also revisit how it assessed the possibility of a catastrophic failure of a dam that would contain waste from the mining operation (pg. 62 – 65) and the potential damages to fisheries (pg. 67).

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.

“A mine in Alaska, and in the United States, has to coexist with that fishery,” he said. “We know that for the residents of Bristol Bay, it’s an important not only commercial but cultural resource. And all of that has to be factored into this project at the end of the day.”

The Bristol Bay Defense Fund, a coalition of mine opponents, called the Army Corps’ remand a refusal to overturn its permit denial, and said that it will merely “clarify” that decision.

Still, United Tribes of Bristol Bay Executive Director Alannah Hurley said, this is another reason why opponents are pursuing watershed-wide protections through federal legislation.

“Not only to address this project, with this company that is refusing to give up, but the many other active mining claims throughout the region,” she said.

The Army Corps’ Alaska District now has to review the decision to deny Pebble a federal permit — and take the EPA’s veto into consideration in the process.

RELATED: Corps to reconsider permit rejection for proposed Pebble mine

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