Corps of Engineers releases two-year schedule for Pebble EIS

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is looking to fast-track the environmental review of the proposed Pebble mine and the project’s opponents, to put it mildly, aren’t happy about it.

The Corps released a schedule March 20 of roughly two years to complete the Pebble environmental impact statement, or EIS, and reach a record of decision on the project.

A 30-day scoping period, in which the public can submit comments to the Corps regarding what they believe should be evaluated for potential impacts from the project, is set to start April 1.

Alannah Hurley, executive director of United Tribes of Bristol Bay, called the Pebble timeline “outrageous.”

UTBB is a consortium of 15 Alaska Native governments from the region.

Hurley contends that while it is legal — 30 days is the minimum time for an EIS scoping public comment period — public scoping for a single month is well outside the bounds of precedent the Corps and other federal agencies have set for projects the size of what Pebble Limited Partnership is proposing.

“There is no way you can get meaningful comment in 30 days,” Hurley said.

A statement from Trout Unlimited Alaska notes the Corps of Engineers is currently leading the EIS for three other large projects in Alaska: the state-sponsored Alaska Standalone Pipeline, or ASAP, project, the Nanushuk North Slope oil development, and the Donlin Gold mine in the Kuskokwim River drainage to the north of Pebble.

The scoping comment periods for those projects were from 75 to 106 days.

The Corps’ Pebble Project Manager Shane McCoy in an interview called the EIS timeline “a strawman schedule.” He said the Corps is required to publish the schedule, but the agency will know much more about how long the Pebble review will actually take after scoping is complete and the comments are analyzed.

McCoy acknowledged the two-year schedule is “aggressive” but said Pebble also has provided substantial baseline information to support the work.

He added that agency leaders will also decide soon whether or not to extend the scoping period after receiving requests to do so.

“We understand the emotions surrounding this project,” McCoy said.

Hurley said a longer 60- or 90-day scoping comment period would run up against the annual time when countless area residents are busy prepping for the salmon season that starts in mid-June; however, that would also allow individuals who fish in the region but live elsewhere an opportunity to have their voices heard directly.

Hurley also said it’s particularly concerning to her that the only public hearing in the Nushagak River watershed is in the local hub of Dillingham, with no meetings scheduled for upriver Nushagak villages closer to the mine site.

The Nushagak is one of two large salmon-producing drainages the project straddles; the Kvichak River-Iliamna Lake system is the other.

While fungible, the overall two-year EIS timeline, from March 2018 to early 2020, also comes as a surprise to those monitoring the project closely. When Pebble submitted its Clean Water Act Section 404 wetlands permit application in late December, Corps of Engineers Alaska regulatory officials noted the average EIS for a large project in the state usually takes four to five years.

Pebble CEO Tom Collier said at the time he hoped the review could be done in three.

According to the schedule, Corps officials hope to have a draft EIS finished by next January with the final EIS published late next year leading to the early 2020 record of decision, according to the project website.

The Corps manages Clean Water Act wetlands activity permits for the Environmental Protection Agency and large wetlands fill applications such as Pebble’s usually trigger a full EIS.

The mine site north of Iliamna Lake would fill 3,190 acres of wetlands, according to Pebble’s Section 404 application.

In January, Pebble’s adversaries got a bit of welcomed but unexpected news from EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, who declined to remove the Obama administration’s proposed prohibitions on developing a large mine in the Bristol Bay region.

Pruitt indicated the agency is still highly skeptical the project can adequately coexist with the area’s fisheries, but also stressed his decision “neither deters nor derails” Pebble’s environmental permitting process because nothing has been finalized.

The entire project stretches over 187 miles from the start of a natural gas pipeline near Anchor Point on the Kenai Peninsula, across Cook Inlet to a deepwater port that would be built on the edge of Kamishak Bay on the west side of the Inlet 53 miles of roads plus a ferry leading to the mine itself.

Hurley noted that residents near the Donlin project — similarly a large open-pit mine proposal with a gas pipeline from Cook Inlet — were afforded 16 public scoping meetings by the Corps.

The Donlin Gold EIS was initiated in December 2012; a draft EIS was published in November 2015 and a final EIS is expected soon.

Pebble spokesman Mike Heatwole said the company is pleased with the schedule the Corps has put forth.

“I think they’ve laid out a fairly comprehensive and transparent approach to what they’re hoping to accomplish,” Heatwole said in an interview.

“We certainly hope, as we’ve said for quite a while, it’s an expeditious permitting review process for the project. There’s a lot of material to cover and we hope that we get a comprehensive review through that.”

He also stressed that scoping is the time when the public can weigh in with what they feel the Corps should evaluate relating to Pebble — much of which have been aired for years — and those issues “are pretty well known.”

“Once the draft EIS comes out, that’s when you really get into the comprehensive look at what the Corps has put forward,” Heatwole added.

The minimum public-comment period after a draft EIS is published is 45 days.

For Pebble, eight scoping meetings were originally planned: seven in Bristol Bay-area communities and one each in Homer and Anchorage. However, a March 22 release from the Corps’ Alaska District indicates a meeting planned for Igiugig, a community at the outlet of Iliamna Lake has been cancelled, leaving seven scoping meetings. Those meetings are set for the period from April 9 in King Salmon to April 19 in Anchorage.

The Corps also translated a condensed version of the Donlin draft EIS into Yupik, which is the first language for many of the region’s Alaska Native residents, but no action has been set for Pebble, Hurley contended.

“It’s the Corps’ mandate to make sure people can engage whether they’re English speaking or not,” she said.

Donlin Gold translated additional project information on its website into Yupik on its own, according to a company spokesman.

Heatwole said the Pebble Partnership is still evaluating the best ways for it to engage with communities near the project.

Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected].

03/28/2018 - 11:07am