Is Pebble mine dead?

Since Phil St. George first pounded his fist on the Cominco table, demanding more budget to explore the Pebble prospect, the proposed mine has required fierce advocates to push it forward.

Opposition has been equally fierce, including the majority of Bristol Bay residents and a broad coalition made up of Alaska Native tribes and corporations, fishing groups, scientists, industry and environmental groups, and – most recently – vocal conservatives who say the mine poses too great a risk to Bristol Bay.

In the last decade, the Pebble project has experienced a roller coaster of gains and setbacks. Partners have come and gone. EPA proposed restrictions and then removed them. The stock price fluctuated at each step, rising in late 2016 with President Trump’s election, falling in 2017 with a negative investor report.

Northern Dynasty Minerals (NDM) kept plodding along, strategically proffering a smaller, 20-year mine plan in late 2017 that it believed would get through permitting. At the same time, it continued to tout the overall resource potential beyond that smaller plan in order to attract more investors and hopefully a consortium of partners.

NDM had to get creative with financing to fund the costly permitting process, lobbying (it’s the highest-spending mining lobbyist in Washington, DC), and litigation. Its press release archives are peppered with a series of bought-deals, private placements and public offerings since major partner Anglo American pulled out of the project in 2014.

This persistence looked like it was going to pay off. Developers and investors finally seemed ready to grasp the brass ring: a positive permit decision from the Army Corps of Engineers (Corps).

Today those hopes were dashed, at least for the project “as currently proposed.” U.S. Army Public Affairs released a statement saying that the Corps could not permit the mine under Section 404 of the Clean Water Act.

The Corps has been working on a Record of Decision (ROD) for the project since it released what developers characterized as a “favorable” Final Environmental Impact Statement on July 24, 2020. The ROD is the official determination on whether the project would get a 404 permit, a permit with conditions, or a rejection in the form of a “No Action Alternative.”

The Corps has long said that the decision maker for the ROD is the Alaska District Commander. Damon Delarosa was sworn in to that position just ten days ago, on August 14. However, today’s statement was issued from the U.S. Army, not the Alaska District’s public affairs office, suggesting that decision-making and media handling of the controversial project is out of local hands.

Over the weekend, several media outlets reported that the Trump Administration would be blocking the project. This followed vocal opposition to the mine by Donald Trump Jr., Nick Ayers (Vice President Pence’s former chief of staff) and FOX News host Tucker Carlson.

NDM pushed back hard against those reports and the characterization of the project as “blocked,” saying that the Corps simply needed more details on a plan for compensatory mitigation, or how they would make up for adverse impacts caused by the development. According to Pebble Limited Partnership (PLP), that plan will be ready in a few weeks.

NDM also developed a public relations campaign to coalesce support for the project, including a video to be shown at this week’s Republican National Convention.

Pebble Watch has inquired with the Corps regarding its next steps and how today’s statement fits into the process of completing the ROD for the project.

Senators Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan released statements supporting the Corps’ conclusion that it would not permit the mine as proposed. “In this instance, after years of extensive process and scientific study, federal officials have determined the Pebble project, as proposed, does not meet the high bar for large-scale development in Bristol Bay,” said Murkowski. “I understand, respect, and support this decision. I agree that a permit should not be issued. And I thank the administration for its commitment to the protection of this world-class watershed and salmon fishery.”

Is this the final chapter in the Pebble mine saga? Possibly. But with a ROD on the horizon and the potential for more litigation, those with an interest in the mine (pro and con) will be on alert for some time to come.