Corps receives, but doesn’t release, final Pebble mitigation plan

The Pebble Partnership submitted its final paper to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers two days ahead of its Nov. 18 deadline, but the last key piece of the project that has garnered significant attention from the White House will be kept under wraps for the time being, according to Corps officials.

Pebble’s final compensatory mitigation plan needs to offset the loss or degradation to nearly 3,300 acres of wetlands and 185 miles of streams, largely through direct “in-kind” compensatory mitigation measures to preserve areas within the remote Koktuli River watershed where the proposed mine sites, according to requirements the Corps of Engineers established in late August.

The company was also required to deliver the plan within 90 days in a letter Corps Alaska Regulatory Division Chief David Hobbie sent to Pebble leaders Aug. 24.

A spokesman confirmed via email that the Corps had received Pebble’s final mitigation plan and indicated it is currently under review and will be released when it is deemed compliant with applicable regulations, but when that will be is unclear.

Questions regarding the authority under which the document would be withheld from the public were not answered in time for this story.

Pebble spokesman Mike Heatwole said the company would wait for the Corps to release the mitigation plan.

According to officials for the Alaska Department of Natural Resources officials, which manages state land, the agency also has not received a final copy of Pebble’s wetlands mitigation plan either.

The compensatory mitigation plan is the last piece of Pebble’s plan the Corps needed before issuing a record of decision on the project — the key federal approval or denial.

Ron Thiessen, CEO of Pebble’s parent company Vancouver-based Northern Dynasty Minerals Ltd. said the final Pebble environmental impact statement published by the Corps in July already concluded that the large open-pit copper and gold project can operate in-concert with the Bristol Bay ecosystem and meeting the mitigation requirements will provide further evidence that Pebble “can and will co-exist with commercial, subsistence and sport fisheries in Southwest Alaska.”

“The ‘in-kind’ and ‘in-watershed’ requirement for mitigation the (Army Corps) established for Pebble clearly sets a high bar for offsetting project effects on wetlands and other aquatic features, but it’s a challenge we have embraced and believe we can achieve,” Thiessen said.

With little development in the Koktuli drainage and large tracts of state land, traditional means of compensatory mitigation such as restoring damaged wetlands or preserving areas under the threat of development were largely viewed as very challenged by the Corps’ requirements by project observers.

The Pebble deposit is also on state land.

Former Pebble CEO Tom Collier said in response to the mitigation thresholds that the company would likely focus its mitigation plan on preserving an area several times larger than the aquatic areas impacted by the project.

Collier abruptly resigned from Pebble in September following the release of a recorded videoconference by individuals posing as potential Chinese investors dubbed the “Pebble Tapes” in which Collier and Thiessen were recorded boasting about their relationships with state and federal officials and plans to greatly expand the mine .

The stringent mitigation requirements laid out by the Corps were in sharp contrast to Pebble’s proposed mitigation plan and guidelines issued by the Trump administration in 2018 specifically for Alaska that emphasized flexibility in mitigation requirements for projects in the state given its relative abundance of wetlands.

They also seem to contradict the final EIS, which generally maintained the conclusions in the draft EIS and states there would be “no measurable change” in the numbers of salmon returning to the Nushagak and Kvichak rivers or in the long-term health of the commercial fisheries in the region. The Koktuli River is in the upper reaches of the Nushagak watershed.

Pebble’s initial compensatory mitigation plan released in January relied on a collection of smaller — and likely less costly — mitigation efforts outside of the Koktuli watershed.

The company first planned to replace culverts in the Dillingham area to restore salmon access to about nine miles of spawning and rearing habitat; improve water treatment facilities at villages near the mine site; and periodically clean debris from seven miles of beach around the Cook Inlet port site.

DNR spokesman Dan Saddler wrote that the Division of Mining, Land and Water staff met with Pebble representatives four times, the last time on Sept. 10, to discuss state law and processes regarding wetlands. DNR officials did not discuss Pebble’s plan after the Corps’ August letter, according to Saddler.

“In the absence of any application for state permits, DNR has no role to play in Pebble’s current activity in support of federal permits,” Saddler wrote.

DNR officials have no expectations as to what Pebble will propose to meet its mitigation requirements, according to Saddler.

Meanwhile, Sen. Lisa Murkowski — who has stressed her opposition to the project since late August and has since indicated a desire to preserve additional parts of the Bristol Bay region — unveiled an Interior and Environment spending bill Nov. 10 that directly addresses Pebble as well.

Murkowski chairs the Appropriations Subcommittee for the Interior and Environment.

A committee bill report states the subcommittee continues to monitor Pebble’s EIS process and concurs with the assessment in the Corps’ Aug. 24 statement that the project cannot be permitted as it stands “and appreciates the administration’s commitment to a decision guided by sound science.”

It further states that, “In the absence of a valid mitigation plan that has received all necessary approvals at the federal and state levels, the Committee urges the agencies to continue to withhold the applicant’s Clean Water Act permit.”

Murkowski spokeswoman Karina Borger wrote in response to questions about the intent language that it indicates Pebble’s wetlands fill permit should not be granted and “that the Army Corps should proceed to a denial of the permit application should Pebble fail to produce a fully viable mitigation plan, including all necessary approvals at the federal and state levels, within the agency’s 90-day timeframe.”

Murkowski would prefer the Army Corps deny the permit within the normal process to avoid needing an Environmental Protection Agency Clean Water Act Section 404(c) veto to stop Pebble because of the uncertainty it would bring for future projects, according to Borger.

Sen. Dan Sullivan, who like Murkowski was sharply critical of the EPA’s proposed veto in 2014 before Pebble applied for a wetlands fill permit, has said he supports such an action if it’s necessary to stop Pebble.

Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected].

11/18/2020 - 9:25am