Why you should be critical of the Corps’ draft EIS

Last week the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) released its Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS), a key part of the permitting process for the proposed Pebble mine. The document describes the environment that would be affected by Pebble Limited Partnership’s 20-year mine plan, various alternatives for mine components (transportation corridor, tailings dam, port and mine site), and looks at potential impacts construction and operation of the mine would have on the environment.

Immediate reaction to the document fell into two camps. Project proponents lauded the DEIS, saying that it proves there are no major impediments. Project opponents called it rushed and inadequate.

Everyone who reads the DEIS should be critical.

Here’s why:

It’s a draft. This is the public’s first look at the Corps’ analysis. The very nature of a draft means that there’s room for improvement. During the scoping period, the public had a chance to weigh in on what they thought should be included in the document. Now that the DEIS is available, it’s time to review what made it into the document and to provide detailed feedback. 

This is one of the main opportunities for public input throughout the entire permitting process. Pebble will need dozens of individual permits in order to develop the mine, and most do not include a chance for public comment. The DEIS is tied to the decision on whether to grant developers a major permit under the Clean Water Act. 

The Corps has asked the public to comment. Not only is public comment accepted, it’s welcome. “I’m encouraging everyone to read the document, formulate their own opinions, and then provide comments on the subsequent analysis,” said USACE Project Manager Shane McCoy. “If there’s something we may have missed, including alternatives, please provide those in comments.” McCoy also noted that the Corps is looking for traditional ecological knowledge at public hearings as well. 

The Pebble DEIS was developed quickly under a new streamlined process. Having a quick EIS process is a clear goal for the Corps, and the Draft EIS was written in record time. This is first project for which the Alaska District of the Corps is implementing “streamlined” measures. For example, it was very precise about the role cooperating agencies would play. The Corps stated that it had to verify the science its analysis was based on, and reportedly had many scientists working on that task. Even so, the time period for developing the DEIS was considerably shorter than for other projects. As the first major document written under this new streamlined approach, the Pebble DEIS is test-case for providing a thorough, legally defensible document that adequately analyses impacts and addresses concerns.

The EIS is not peer reviewed.While it is not unprecedented for an agency to undertake a peer review of the science underpinning an EIS, it isn’t typical, and it’s not required. When developing its analysis, the Corps referenced thousands of pages of environmental baseline data for the Pebble deposit area and transportation corridor provided by consultants for the Pebble partnership. These have not been peer reviewed. That doesn’t mean they are flawed. However, in the absence of a scientific peer review, the choice for the public is to either trust the documents, or carefully examine the EIS and the scientific work that underpins it.

Pebble is a project with potential for dramatic change in Bristol Bay and beyond. The 20-year Pebble project is the first proposed in an area of Bristol Bay that is rich with mineral deposits. Developers have stated they plan on expanding the mine in the future (which will require additional permits). Four other entities own rights to mineral claims in the area surrounding Pebble’s claims, setting up an anticipated “mining district.” This concept is exciting for some and appalling for others, and underscores the importance of weighing in at this stage of the process.

Unless extended, the public comment period opens this Friday and runs through May 30, 2019.

Read the DEIS Executive Summary here, then dive in to particulars at the USACE Pebble project website.