USACE: Bristol Bay Mine Cannot Receive Permit as Currently Proposed

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In a statement issued Monday, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers indicated that the Pebble Mine development in Alaska’s Bristol Bay cannot receive a Clean Water Act permit as currently proposed, citing its expected environmental impact. 

“This administration supports the mining industry and acknowledges the benefits the industry has provided to the economy and productivity of this country . . . The Pebble Mine project has the potential to fulfill all of those needs; however, as currently proposed, the project could have substantial environmental impacts within the unique Bristol Bay watershed and lacks adequate compensatory mitigation,” USACE said in a statement. “The Corps finds that the project, as currently proposed, cannot be permitted under section 404 of the Clean Water Act.”

The announcement follows one month after the USACE’s controversial final environmental impact statement for the mine, which was issued on July 24. Copper is toxic to salmon, and Bristol Bay is the home of the world’s most productive and valuable sockeye salmon fishery; the Environmental Protection Agency determined in 2014 that the project posed an unavoidable risk to the health of salmon spawning grounds in the drainage. Under new leadership, EPA withdrew its opposition in 2019, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers moved forward with Clean Water Act environmental impact statement (EIS) permitting. In a final EIS published 31 days ago, the Army Corps of Engineers found that the project’s “impacts to Bristol Bay salmon are not expected to be measurable.” 

To many observers, the announcement issued Monday – that the project would have a substantial impact on the environment and could not be permitted as proposed – appeared to be a reversal of the USACE’s stance. 

“The Trump administration and the Army Corp of Engineers finally said what scientists, fishermen, sportsmen, tribal leaders, and restaurateurs have been saying all along – a mine at Bristol Bay would kill too many salmon and is an unacceptable place for mining,” said Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) in a statement. 

“Today, the administration’s U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced that the Pebble Mine would not be receiving a Clean Water Act permit,” said Chris Wood, CEO of sport fishing advocacy organization Trout Unlimited. “This sends the Pebble Mine back to the drawing board, and the fact of the matter is that you cannot mitigate a pristine area.” 

However, the Pebble Partnership – a Canadian-owned entity tied to B.C.-based mining conglomerate Hunter Dickinson – says that the USACE’s announcement was expected. According to Pebble CEO Tom Collier, it was not motivated by political pressure and does not represent a substantial obstacle for the project.

“The letter does not ask for a delay or pause in the permitting process . . . Based on our understanding of the substance of the letter, our discussions with the state, our substantial work in the field and our discussions with the USACE we believe our final Comprehensive Management Plan submission will be submitted within weeks and will satisfy all of the requirements of the letter,” said Collier in a statement.“Anyone suggesting . . . that Pebble will not be able to comply with the letter or that such compliance will significantly delay issuing a [Record of Decision] – must be ignorant of the extensive preparation we have undertaken in order to meet the requirements of the letter.”

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