Leaks reveal refined Pebble Mine plan
New route to Cook Inlet is biggest change in Final EIS
Last updated 2/14/2020 at 4:55am
The executive summary of the Preliminary Final Environmental Impact Statement (PFEIS) for the Pebble copper-gold mine project in Southwest Alaska was leaked to select media outlets earlier this week, providing an early look at this draft document not yet ready for public release.
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), the federal agency charged with leading the EIS process for Pebble, last week sent the PFEIS to federal, state and tribal cooperating agencies for review. E&E News, an energy and environment publication, received a copy of the draft, which it published in conjunction with a Feb. 11 article.
A day before the E&E article, United Tribes of Bristol Bay, an outspoken critic of the Pebble Mine project, decried the Pebble PFEIS as "a rushed process" that "has not addressed myriad issues and data gaps cited by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the Environmental Protection Agency, and other cooperating agencies."
The purpose of USACE sending the preliminary document to cooperating agencies is to ensure that any concerns raised with the Draft EIS (DEIS), which was published a year ago, have been addressed.
"It is our understanding that the USACE has taken to heart the breadth of comments received from the cooperating agencies and from members of Congress such as Senator Murkowski and included them in this latest draft. We further understand that the final EIS will respond to every comment that has been received in a thorough and comprehensive manner," said Pebble Partnership CEO Tom Collier.
The Pebble Mine under consideration in the EIS is expected to produce 5.74 billion pounds of copper, 6.4 million ounces of gold, 260 million lb of molybdenum and 32 million oz of silver over a 20-year mine life. The deposit also hosts roughly 6.4 million lb of rhenium, a superalloy metal considered critical to the United States, according to a calculation completed in 2011.
New route confirmed
Most of the changes proposed in the PFEIS are related to the transportation and natural gas pipeline between the proposed mine and Cook Inlet.
The new route includes parts of a transportation route proposed in Alternate 2 of the DEIS.
This new preferred alternative avoids constructing the mine access road in Upper Talarik Creek, which was a concern brought up during the DEIS comment period.
To accommodate this new route, Pebble Partnership struck a right-of-way agreement with Iliamna Natives Ltd., an Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) village corporation.
Iliamna Natives said this long-term agreement is a commitment to advance the Pebble project in a technically feasible, economically viable and environmentally responsible manner, providing a range of benefits and opportunities for the village corporation and its shareholders.
"Iliamna Natives Ltd. did not come to the decision to enter a right-of-way agreement with the Pebble Partnership lightly," said Iliamna Natives President Lorene Anelon. "We know we are the true caretakers of our lands and of the salmon, and we take that responsibility very seriously."
This provides access to a ferry landing east of the village of Iliamna at Eagle Bay, as well as road and pipeline corridors and associated material borrow sites to link the Pebble mine to the Iliamna airport and Eagle Bay ferry landing site.
From Eagle Bay, the new preferred alternative would continue to the original Amakdedori port on the west shore of Cook Inlet.
Rerouted natural gas pipeline, new lower environmental impact ferry terminals and optimizations to minimize wetland impacts are other changes made to address concerns brought up during public scoping of the DEIS.
While preliminary in nature, Collier points out that the information in the 116-page executive summary of the PFEIS was positive and demonstrates the project can be done without harming the Bristol Bay fishery and would be beneficial to communities nearest to the proposed gold-copper mine.
"We are encouraged by the information in this leaked copy of the executive summary and believe the final EIS will support issuing a permit for the construction of a mine at Pebble and that it can be done responsibly," the Pebble Partnership CEO said.
Pebble noted several of these findings in the PFEIS:
• There would be no measurable change in the number of returning salmon and the historical relationship between ex-vessel values and wholesale values. Under normal operations, the alternatives would not be expected to have a measurable effect on fish numbers and result in long-term changes to the health of the commercial fisheries in Bristol Bay.
• Considering the low use of habitat to be removed – based on the physical parameters of the reaches, the consequently low densities of juvenile Chinook and Coho observed in the tributaries, and the few numbers of spawning Coho observed – impacts to anadromous and resident fish populations from these direct habitat losses would be expected to fall within the range of natural variability.
• Employment through the Pebble Mine project would have beneficial economic effects on minority and low-income communities lasting for the life of the project.
• Overall, impacts to fish and wildlife are not expected to impact subsistence harvest levels, because no population-level decrease in resources would be anticipated.
• There would be no effects on any community groundwater or surface water supplies from the changes in groundwater flows at the mine site.
"Since the release of the Draft EIS for the project and subsequent public comments received, our team has been working to provide the USACE with the environmental and engineering information required to allow them to fully address all the technical issues that were raised. The notion that this process has been rushed and that key issues have been ignored is absolutely false," Collier said. "The USACE has been diligent and transparent in their review of the project."
The Pebble Partnership CEO noted that the release of the PFEIS to the cooperating agencies shows that the permitting process is advancing for the project and should meet USACE's published schedule for a final EIS this summer.
"Clearly there will be a lot more information to digest when the USACE releases the final EIS this summer. We believe it will show the level of diligence taken by the cooperating agencies to review the full technical scope of the project and to ensure all issues have been adequately evaluated in this process," he said. "We further believe it will show this project can be developed responsibly and in line with the expectations Alaskans have for economic development and environmental protection."
CORRECTION: The new preferred alternative route for Pebble access runs between the proposed mine site and Amakdedori port. An earlier version of this article said the new preferred alternative would follow the North route outlined in Alternative 2 of the DEIS. Only a small portion of this route is part of the preferred alternative in the PFEIS.