Despite Legislation, Litigation, Pebble Mine on Downhill Slide
U.S. Dept. of Commerce
The owners of the proposed Pebble Mine, Northern Dynasty Minerals, are getting desperate. While still alive, the project to build one of the world’s largest mines smack dab in the middle of one of the world’s most significant wild salmon runs has suffered several major setbacks in the past year.
Located in Alaska's Bristol Bay watershed, the proposed mine would threaten a priceless natural resource commercial fishermen, native tribes and consumers depend on. In a refreshing show of unity, commercial fishermen, recreational fishermen, conservationists and Alaska Natives have banded together during the past few years to fight the Pebble Partnership to save 14,000 jobs and a $1.5 billion industry.
To review, in the last several months:
- Rio Tinto, the last of the major partner investors expected to largely fund and manage the Pebble Mine backed out, leaving only Northern Dynasty to try to push the project through.
- The EPA initiated the rarely used the “404(c)”process, which would preemptively shut down or restrict the project based on the Clean Water Act, saying that as proposed, the Pebble Mine would pose too great a risk. The EPA stated it would allow Pebble to apply for a permit for a drastically smaller operation.
- From July to Sept., the EPA collected more than 625,000 comments supporting restrictions on the proposed mine, and only 5,000 comments opposing those restrictions.
- Two mine containment dams failed in August, spilling toxic waste into public water supply in Mexico, and into critical salmon rivers in British Columbia. The latter dam was designed by the same company hired to design the Pebble mine containment dam, and the same company Northern Dynasty used to criticize the EPA Watershed Report. An independent report suggested the B.C. dam failure was a result of poor design.
- Pebble Partnership filed three lawsuits to stop EPA “interference.” The first, claiming EPA violated the Clean Water Act, was dismissed. Pebble has appealed. The second claims EPA violated the Federal Advisory Committee Act, essentially claiming EPA chose only anti-mine scientists to conduct a watershed assessment to determine potential impacts. That suit is pending, and the EPA has filed a motion to dismiss. The last suit accuses EPA of violating the Freedom of Information Act, claiming the agency has not properly disclosed all of the information related to its conclusions about the proposed mine’s impact.
- In November, a federal judge issued a temporary injunction barring EPA from continuing with the 404(c) process pending litigation.
- Also in November, 65% of Alaska voters passed a measure requiring legislative approval of any mine in Bristol Bay.
- In December, President Obama declared the ocean waters of Bristol Bay off limits to oil and gas drilling. Though this does not affect the Pebble project, it does signal the President’s views on Bristol Bay’s natural significance, which could come into play later.
In January, Senate Republicans introduced S.B. 234, which essentially would prevent EPA from preemptively blocking the Pebble Mine using the Clean Water Act. In February, House Republicans introduced a similar measure called H.R. 896.
With all of the money funneled toward political influence and litigation, it’s no wonder Northern Dynasty’s stock price has plummeted from $21 per share in 2011 to a close of 42 cents a share on March 9.
To be clear, the Pebble project still has a chance to succeed. But that chance appears to be getting smaller as Pebble’s actions seem increasingly rash.
Even if Pebble were to win in court, years would likely pass before Northern Dynasty could submit a viable permit. That’s because it would take more time and money to conduct all of the field studies (environmental impact and other) again. And Northern Dynasty would probably need another partner to finance the permitting process, let alone actual mining.
If legislation to hamstring EPA does pass in both the House and Senate, the measure would go to President Obama’s desk. Given that he recently vetoed the Keystone XL Pipeline and protected Bristol Bay from oil and gas drilling, I think he would strongly consider protecting the bay’s tributaries from the environmental hazards of mining. That is certainly my hope. Congress might also try to constrict EPA funding, either as a whole or specifically toward Clean Water where Pebble is concerned, to slow or stop EPA’s enforcement authority.
That said, if you feel strongly about the issue and want to see it through to a pro-fisheries conclusion, register your voice. Follow this link to identify and contact your senators and representatives.
If the EPA avoids these roadblocks and issues a final 404(c) ruling, the closure or severe restriction of the Pebble Mine project would likely have a domino effect on other proposed mines in the area.
And that would be good news for the salmon and those who depend on them.