Pebble permit scoping report first step toward EIS

The summary released Aug. 31 by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers of the topics the public wants studied in the lead up to a permitting decision for the proposed Pebble mine was met with criticism from groups who feel the mine review is being fast-tracked.

The comments that make up the scoping report are, as the name implies, intended to guide the scope of analysis in the environmental impact statement, or EIS, the Corps is in the midst of drafting for the large mine project.

Not meant to be a referendum on the controversial mine plan, the Corps received 174,889 comments during the 90-day scoping period that ran until June 29, according to the report. The Corps extended the original 30-day comment period shortly after it opened April 1 following requests to do so from Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Gov. Bill Walker’s administration, who suggested the month-long comment period could be insufficient given the scale and complexity of the project.

Public meetings were also held in nine communities during scoping, but mine opponents contended more should have been held in the numerous remote villages and small towns across the Bristol Bay region that have the potential to be impacted by the project.

Much more than a large surface mine, the Pebble project would stretch over 187 miles from the start of a natural gas pipeline near Anchor Point on the Kenai Peninsula, across Cook Inlet to a new port that would be built near Amakdedori on the west side of the Inlet. From there, the transportation corridor would include 53 miles of new road plus a ferry across massive Iliamna Lake that would lead to the mine itself.

“The input we received is insightful and helpful, informing our analysis and potential alternatives to be included in the draft EIS,” Corps Project Manager Shane McCoy said in a prepared statement.

Though the Corps received nearly 175,000 submissions during scoping, just 3,653 were considered individual comments, with the remaining roughly 171,000 being various form letters, according to the report.

More than one-third of the non-form comments focused on the potential socioeconomic impacts of the project; the rest were split roughly evenly between suggestions and concerns regarding the National Environmental Policy Act process, the proposed tailings dam facility and prospective project impacts to fish and wildlife. More than half of the form letters focused on the NEPA process.

Groups opposing the project were critical of the 37-page scoping report, alleging it glosses over many important issues that need review in the EIS.

United Tribes of Bristol Bay, Commercial Fishermen For Bristol Bay and Trout Unlimited Alaska all called for state and federal leaders, particularly Murkowski, to pressure the Corps to slow or stop the EIS until a more thorough review of the project’s potential impacts is done.

Trout Unlimited Alaska stated in a press release responding to the publication of the report that more than 400,000 comments were submitted that raise concerns about Pebble’s permit application.

Pebble Limited Partnership spokesman Mike Heatwole said simply via email that the company will continue to work closely with the Corps to help the complete the draft EIS in a timely manner.

The totality of the Corps’ review is unclear at this point given the draft EIS has not yet been published, but the aggressive schedule set for the Pebble EIS has also been a point of contention.

Pebble Limited Partnership submitted its project plan to the Corps for review in late December 2017 and Corps officials plan to have a draft EIS finished in January 2019, or between six and seven months after the scoping period closed.

Comparatively, it took the agency nearly three years to draft the first version of the EIS for the Donlin Gold mine permit application, a large surface mine proposal with extensive support infrastructure similar to Pebble.

Corps regulatory officials insist they are applying best practices learned during the Donlin review to the Pebble EIS, allowing them to speed up the process while performing the same level of analysis.

Aside from expected comments highlighting the economic opportunities the project could provide to a region with few year-round jobs and the potential harm a tailings dam failure could have on salmon habitat downstream of the mine, many commenters stressed the need to study possible impacts to subsistence activities not only in the Bristol Bay area but also near the gas pipeline origin on the Kenai Peninsula.

Some noted the mine could reduce out-migration from the region, helping to maintain enrollment in small schools in the area, while others contended the mine — with a 20-year initial life — would simply create a greater boom-and-bust economic cycle that would end with lost jobs when the mine closed.

Suggestions were made to require an economic assessment of the project be conducted to determine if Pebble Limited Partnership’s plan is financially viable.

Pebble CEO Tom Collier said in an April interview with the Journal that the company plans to release a preliminary economic assessment of its latest project plan by the end of the year. Heatwole said in a Sept. 4 email that he had no further information to provide about the status of the economic report.

Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected].

Updated: 
09/05/2018 - 11:25am

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