The Army Corps Tosses a Big Rock at Alaska’s Pebble Mine

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The Trump Administration has finally come down in the side of the environment, denying a key permit to a massive open pit copper and gold mine in Alaska that would have been located between two of Bristol Bay’s major salmon spawning streams.

The Army Corps of Engineers, which previously found the project would have “no measurable effect” on the world’s greatest sockeye salmon fishery, announced it would block the Pebble Mine because developers’ plan “does not comply with Clean Water Act guidelines and concluded that the proposed project is contrary to the public interest.”

The massive proposed mine has long generated opposition from Northwest and Alaska fishing interests, the Bristol Bay Native Corp., restaurants, and chefs, even such prominent jewelry firms as Tiffany and Ben Bridge.  It found an implacable, years-long opponent in Washington Sen. Maria Cantwell. “The science is clear: The Pebble Mine could have destroyed the Brristol Bay ecosystem and the millions of wild salmon that depend on it,” Cantwell said in a statement, released minutes after the Corps announced its decision.

“I look forward to working with the incoming administration and the Alaska delegation to establish permanent protections for Bristol Bay and promote more sustainable economic opportunities for the local communities living around these irreplaceable lands. Healthy salmon runs are the backbone of our fishing and outdoor economy throughout the region, and we must do everything we can to protect it.”

The mine project, sponsored by the Pebble Limited Partnership, a subsidiary of a Vancouver-based firm, would have put two elements of the Alaska economy on a collision course.  The Bristol Bay fishery supports more than 14,000 commercial, sport, and native fishery jobs.

The Trump administration had appeared to tilt toward the mine.  It permitted the Pebble Partnership to apply for a permit, even though the U.S. Environmental Protection Administration conducted exhaustive studies under the Obama Administration.  Those studies concluded the project would damage 130 miles spawning streams, wreck 2,800 acres of wetlands and have “significant” and potentially “catastrophic” impacts on the fishery. The Corps delivered a much-criticized environmental impact study, with a finding that the mine “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 of Bristol Bay.”

But . . . the project had foes in high places.  Donald Trump, Jr., and his brother are clients of luxury fishing resorts in the area.  Eric Trump’s bachelor party was held there.  Unbelievably, strident Fox News host Tucker Carlson began to talk about damage to salmon.

The leadership of Pebble Partnership then proceeded to shoot itself in both feet.  A group called the Environmental Investigation Agency, posing as investors, secretly recorded two top executives boasting of their backstage influence with Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska. Northern Dynasty Minerals CEO  Ronald Thiessen predicted the mine could extract minerals for 160 years,  even though the company had applied for a 20-year permit.

The Alaska senators promptly came out against the mine, Murkowski breathing fire over the questioning of her integrity. “This is the right decision, reached the right way,” Murkowski said Wednesday, adding “that this is the wrong mine in the wrong place.”  The exact same words were used six years ago by Cantwell.

Alaska’s Congressman-for-life Don Young is a longtime mining industry satrap, who grumped on Wednesday about the Corps’ decision. “Now there must be a consideration of how the federal government will compensate the state for the loss of economic potential,” Young said in a statement.  “The proposed mine has always been subject to political intrigue and the whims of outsiders who simply do not understand our state.” An estimated 1,100 fishers in Washington have license to catch salmon in Bristol Bay.

Environmentalists were celebrating. “Today’s [Corps] decision gives the people of Bristol Bay temporary relief from this mine: It’s now time for EPA to use the Clean Water Act to kill this mine once and for all,” said Guido Rahr of the Wild Salmon Center.

He may get his wish.  President-elect Joe Biden said in August that his administration would stop the mine.  “It is no place for a mine,” he said.  “The Obama-Biden Administration reached that conclusion when we ran a rigorous, science-based process in 2014, and it is still true today.”

Northern Dynasty Minerals shares plunged nearly 50 percent on the stock market Wednesday, down to around 40 cents a share.

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