Pro, con, and “waiting for the science”

As federal permitting for the Pebble project continues, so does media attention, including recent features in Science magazine, The Nation, and the TODAY Show. Locally, the project has been a source of hopes, fears and frustration for 15+ years. So where do Alaskans stand, and what do our legislators and state leaders have to say? From Bristol Bay to our Alaska delegation, here are some insights:

Alaska delegation 

In September Senator Lisa Murkowski called for federal agencies to use their discretionary authorities to ensure the full protection of the Bristol Bay region if they are not “satisfied with the Army Corps’ analysis of the project,” to include EPA’s authority under the Clean Water Act to veto the project. This language was included in the Senate’s 2020 Appropriations Bill (p 87), which called for all gaps and deficiencies in the Corps’ Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) to be fully addressed, even if that requires more scientific study and comprehensive analysis. 

Senator Dan Sullivan is also focused on the science, noting that the EPA and the Department of the Interior had submitted many  comments to the Corps that were highly critical of the draft EIS. “The burden of proof is now on Pebble and the Corps to substantially address these concerns based on science as required by federal law. This is a high bar and as I’ve repeatedly said, we can’t trade one resource for the other in that region.” – Senate Commerce, Science & Transportation Hearing – September 25, 2019

Representative Don Young has stated that the project must go through the permitting process, and that science will determine if it should be permitted or not. He has most recently spoken out in favor of EPA’s action to rescind its proposed restrictions in Bristol Bay. He also spoke against an amendment to an appropriations bill in the House of Representatives designed to stop the Pebble permitting process by blocking funding for the Corps. (That amendment passed the House, but was not taken up by the Senate.)

State of Alaska

During the 2018 gubernatorial campaign, then candidate Michael Dunleavy was asked about his views on the Pebble project. “It’s difficult for me to answer until it goes through the study process,” he said. “Once we can examine that data then I think a final decision can be made…” However, in July 2019, Governor Dunleavy wrote a letter of encouragement to potential Pebble investor Wheaton Precious Minerals after anti-Pebble groups had written the company a letter detailing the risks of investing in the project. Although results of the federal permitting process are as yet unknown, and the state permitting process has not yet begun, Dunleavy promises that “…once appropriate permits are granted, I am equally committed to removing obstacles that would hinder immediate construction.” 

Twenty members of the Alaska legislature penned their own letter to Wheaton, saying that Dunleavy’s letter misrepresents the ease with which the State might permit the project. “As individual Alaskans, our opposition to this project arises from the potentially severe social, economic, and cultural risks that the Pebble Mine represents. As elected officials, our opposition to this project aligns with the interests of our constituents.”

Some of the Alaska State Senate Majority are more confident that the project should be permitted. In comments submitted in response to Corps DEIS for the Pebble Project, they argued against an extended public input period, saying the document “includes a significant number of findings that should provide confidence that the Pebble Project has undergone a rigorous and thorough review….The time has come for responsible development without unnecessary delay.”

In Bristol Bay

United Tribes of Bristol Bay, Bristol Bay Native Association, Bristol Bay Economic Development Corporation, Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association and other groups make up a broad coalition in opposition to Pebble. 

This includes Bristol Bay Native Corporation (BBNC), which opposes the Pebble project on behalf of the region and its shareholders. In July 2019, BBNC received 4,179 responses to a survey of around 9,000 shareholders. Seventy-six percent of respondents said they are opposed or strongly opposed to the project. BBNC has also stated that the Pebble project does not have “BBNC’s permission to trespass our subsurface lands or utilize our subsurface resources for the construction of a transportation corridor anywhere around Lake Iliamna.”

Pedro Bay Corporation is also opposed to the proposed mine, and has stated it will not allow Pebble access to its surface lands on the eastside of Lake Iliamna for the purpose of a transportation corridor.

However, Iliamna Village Corporation and Alaska Peninsula Corporation have both signed agreements with the Pebble Partnership for right-of-way access on surface estate they own.

For more perspectives from Bristol Bay, this story in E&E news features individual residents and their views on the project.

Industry Groups

The Resource Development Council, Alaska Miners Association, and others support the Pebble project, outlining benefits of the project and their belief that it can be developed safely.

Additional Surveys

In late 2018, the Pebble Limited Partnership conducted a survey related to the project that received more than 1,500 responses. 87% of respondents believe that “The Pebble Deposit can be developed with responsible environmental stewardship.” In Spring 2019, the Alaska State Senate Majority conducted a poll of Alaskans that included this question on Pebble: “If all environmental safeguards are met, do you support or oppose development of Pebble mine?” Of 7,461 responses, 26% strongly support, 13% somewhat support, 11% somewhat oppose, and 50% strongly oppose.

Delving into DEIS responses

The Corps received nearly 116,000 comments in response to its DEIS. As of mid-September, it was still going through those comments and hasn’t said how many were in support of the project or against it. Many tribes, cities, corporations, environmental organizations, and technical experts provided specific feedback stating their concerns on topics ranging from water to wildlife. Resource industry groups and individuals in support of the project focused on economic benefits and generally agreed with the Corps’ DEIS. You can search for and review comments at the Corps’ site.