U.S. Army Corps key to Trump’s move on Pebble Mine

This week, the Trump administration placed a major hurdle in front of the company seeking to develop the largest gold and copper mine in North America. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on Monday stated that the proposed Pebble Mine project, as currently designed, would not receive the necessary federal permits. The mine was slated for southwest Alaska’s Bristol Bay region, a mostly wild sweep of tundra, wetlands, and rivers that is home to the largest sockeye salmon fishery in the world.

In a two-page letter to the project developer, Northern Dynasty, the Army Corps gave the Canadian company 90 days to provide a plan to mitigate the mine’s “unavoidable adverse impacts to aquatic resources,” including the destruction of more than 3,000 acres of wetlands and nearly 200 miles of streams. While company officials say that this request is just a normal part of the permitting process, many Alaskans believe the project has been dealt a body blow. In a statement, Alaska’s senior senator, Lisa Murkowski, a Republican who has for years declined to take a clear stand on the Pebble Mine, wrote, “I agree that a permit should not be issued.”

From the start, many viewed the project as a pipe dream. In 2006, when Northern Dynasty first sought support for the mine from the Bristol Bay Native Corporation (BBNC), a Native-owned investment company and the largest private landowner in the region, company officials boasted to corporation representatives that the mine would be so big, “you’ll see it from the moon,” according to BBNC CEO Jason Metrokin. The massive operation would require a pit one mile wide and a quarter-mile deep, as well as seven dams — the largest of which would be 50 stories high — for storing mine wastes. The complex would sit within a seismically active region at the headwaters of what might be the most lucrative salmon fishery on Earth.

The roughly 7,000 residents of the Bristol Bay region are predominantly Alaska Native and live in small communities accessible only by boat or plane. Local economies are based on salmon, which supports both ancient subsistence traditions and a $1.5 billion industry that attracts commercial and recreational fishermen from around the state and the world. Regional residents have long fought the mine for fear it would decimate their way of life. The trade association that represents Bristol Bay’s commercial fishing fleet estimates that 85 percent of commercial fishermen stand against the project, and a recent statewide poll funded by a conservation group shows that likely Alaska voters oppose the mine by a margin of two to one.

Over the years, four major investors have walked away from the project, including the giant Anglo American, which withdrew after pouring in more than a half-billion dollars. And in 2014, the Obama administration’s Environmental Protection Agency released a decision that essentially killed the project.

But almost as soon as inaugural crowds had dispersed in 2017, the Trump administration resuscitated the project, fast-tracking the permitting process as it rolled back environmental regulations in other sectors. The environmental review process has been criticized by a host of state and federal agencies. The Interior Department called the draft environmental impact statement, released in February 2019, “so inadequate that it precludes meaningful analysis,” and in response to the near-final version of the environmental report, even the notoriously pro-development Alaska Department of Natural Resources said in March 2020 that aspects of the project were not “reasonable, practicable, or safe.”

Still, last month, when the Army Corps released its final environmental impact statement for the mine, it ignored input from EPA scientists and  determined the project would have no negative impact on fisheries. The mine was apparently greenlighted.

A few weeks later, Donald Trump Jr. and Nick Ayers, a former top aide to Vice President Mike Pence, called on the administration to halt development of the mine. Trump Jr., who has taken his son fishing in the region, tweeted that the Bristol Bay area and the fishery it supports are “too unique and fragile to take any chances with.” Then Fox News host Tucker Carlson aired a segment critical of the mine, featuring Bass Pro Shops founder Johnny Morris, a major Trump donor. The pressure worked. In a seeming about-face, the Army Corps’ Monday letter requires Pebble to restore or improve other wetlands outside the project area but in the same river system as the mine. Because of the pristine condition of the region, that could ultimately block the development.

Pro-mining forces in Alaska insist the door remains open for Pebble. “I fundamentally disagree that this is a nail in the coffin,” said Deantha Skibinksi, executive director of the Alaska Miners Association. Resource developers in Alaska remain eternally optimistic under the Trump administration, which has given them a big boost, including last week’s announcement paving the way for oil and gas drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, despite opposition from a majority of American voters. Conservation groups, too, recognize that this is far from a done deal. Pebble officials have 90 days to explain how they would compensate for their mine’s environmental damages, a period that ends after the November election. A second Trump term could be as unpredictable as his first.

The Army Corps’ announcement on Pebble came as welcome news to Alannah Hurley, executive director of the United Tribes of Bristol Bay, which represents the region’s 15 federally recognized tribes. A Yup’ik, Hurley is a fourth-generation commercial salmon fisherman. “Our region is so pristine, you can’t mitigate it,” she said. “That’s the point.”