Major milestone on long path for Pebble
Final EIS completion clears path for Pebble to begin state permitting, make its case in the courts of law, public opinion North of 60 Mining News – July 31, 2020
Last updated 8/21/2020 at 5:05am
The July 24 release of a final Environmental Impact Statement that details a mine at Pebble capable of extracting copper, gold, and other valuable metals from a world-class deposit in Southwest Alaska without harming the Bristol Bay salmon fishery is a landmark achievement for Northern Dynasty Minerals Ltd., which has spent the better part of two decades advancing the project to this point.
"We're ecstatic to reach this major milestone in the advancement of the Pebble Project – a modern mineral development proposal that has the potential to become one of the most significant metals producers in the United States, and a major source of jobs, investment, economic activity and government revenues in Alaska," said Northern Dynasty Minerals President and CEO Ron Thiessen.
Though the final EIS is not the final federal decision on Pebble, this more than 2,000-page document details a mine and associated infrastructure that seems to meet all the environmental protecting criteria to secure the federal and state permits required to develop a mine.
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the lead federal regulator for permitting the Pebble Mine under the National Environmental Policy Act, anticipates the issuance of a record of decision for the mine later this summer, which will finalize the NEPA process.
While nearing the end of the federal permitting process provides Northern Dynasty a solid foundation to build upon, the company still has a lot of work to do before a Pebble Mine is a reality.
"There is more work to be done, but the publication of the Final EIS today is a clear validation that Pebble can be developed in an environmentally sound and socially responsible way, creating benefits and opportunities for the people of Bristol Bay and all Alaskans," said Thiessen.
Northern Dynasty's primary objective is to secure a major mining company, or group of companies, to join the Pebble Limited Partnership as it continues to build support for a future mine and moves forward with state permitting.
Pebble Partnership will also likely be tasked with defending the findings of the EIS and any positive record of decision by the Army Corps of Engineers.
"Project detractors will surely take this report to court and I welcome that challenge because the process is sound and defensible," said Pebble Partnership CEO Tom Collier.
One such detractor has already thrown down the gauntlet.
In conjunction with the release of the final EIS for Pebble, Joel Reynolds, a senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said "we will challenge it at every step."
Court of public opinion
While challenges in the court of law are seemingly inevitable, the court of public opinion will likely be the primary focus of the Pebble Partnership as it works its way through a two- to three-year state permitting process.
"Alaskans, especially the residents of Bristol Bay, have never received the real Pebble story and after a lengthy misinformation campaign many were led to believe a mine at Pebble would harm the fishery," Collier said on July 24. "Today's report from the USACE turns that lie on its head – returning salmon won't be harmed, subsistence fishing won't be harmed, and the commercial fishing industry won't be harmed."
In addition to protecting water quality and the Bristol Bay fishery, the final EIS found that the development of the Pebble Mine would have significant positive socioeconomic impacts to the region and state.
Highlighted benefits outlined the executive summary of the final EIS include:
• Overall, impacts to fish and wildlife are not expected to impact subsistence harvest levels.
• There would be no measurable change in the number of returning salmon.
• The increase in job opportunities, year-round or seasonal employment, steady income, and lower cost of living would have beneficial impacts on the EIS analysis area, especially for communities in the Lake and Peninsula Borough, during construction and operations of the project.
• Having a new economic hub in the area is expected to reduce or eliminate a current decline in local population due to the increase in employment opportunities and indirect effects on education and infrastructure, and could also lead some prior residents to return to communities.
• A mine at Pebble would also generate $27 million annually in severances taxes for the Lake and Peninsula Borough during operations, plus annual property tax revenue to the Kenai Peninsula Borough.
• Pebble is also expected to generate $25 million annually in state taxes through construction, and $84 million annually in state taxes and royalty payments during the operations phase.
These positive impacts and the roughly 850 high paying direct jobs and roughly 1,200 other jobs spurred by an operating Pebble Mine could be vital to Alaska, which is dealing with a budget crises that has been exasperated by the COVID-19 pandemic and low oil prices.
"Pebble can potentially make a significant contribution to Alaska's economy with hundreds of millions in annual activity and a multibillion-dollar construction phase. It could mean good, year-round jobs in Southwest Alaska where full-time employment is seriously lacking," said Collier. "We have worked to establish solid business relationships with Iliamna Lake village corporations where the local hire commitment can be fully realized."
These relationships have garnered the project and potential future mine stronger support from the communities that are closest to Pebble than the residents of the wider Bristol Bay region.
Pebble Partnership hopes the environmental analysis provided by the permitting process and initiatives to broaden the economic opportunities offered by Pebble help broaden support for development of a mine.
One such initiative is the recent creation of a performance dividend to distribute 3% of the net profits generated from a future mine at Pebble to year-round residents of Bristol Bay who register for the program.
"Now that the federal review has so clearly stated that this project can be done safely and without harm to subsistence and commercial salmon harvests, I encourage Bristol Bay residents to register for the Pebble Performance Dividend to share in the Pebble opportunity," said Collier. "Eligible participants signing up by the end of July qualify for one of five early $1,000 dividends that will be paid out until construction."
Before construction can begin, however, Pebble Partnership must traverse the Alaska permitting process, which is estimated to take two to three years.
The issuance of the final EIS triggered the initial stages of this process. Before Army Corps of Engineers can issue a discharge permit under Section 404 of the federal Clean Water Act, the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation must certify that the Pebble Mine described in the EIS will not violate state water quality laws.
The state decision making process includes a 30-day public comment period. After which, DEC will determine how to proceed.
If the state agency certifies the permit or issues a waiver, then the Army Corps of Engineers can issue the major federal permit required for developing a mine at Pebble.
Issuance of this Clean Water Act permit and a positive record of decision will clear the path toward the next milestones of developing a mine at Pebble – securing a global miner to fill out the Pebble Partnership; gain state permits for the mine; and making its case in the courts of law and public opinion for an environmentally responsible and socioeconomically robust mine at the world-class copper-gold deposit in Southwest Alaska.
For now, the Pebble Partnership team is celebrating a milestone that will make the next landmarks a little easier to achieve.
"Today was really 15 years in the making," Collier said on July 24. "From the beginning, we dedicated the time, resources and technical work to ensure we had a project that could be done responsibly, be done without harm to the Bristol Bay fishery, and provide meaningful contributions to the communities closest to the project. After an extensive, rigorous, and transparent review process, the USACE has concluded the Pebble Project meets that mark."