Despite all its bad press, the company hoping to develop the large Pebble mine near Iliamna is still at work on a wetlands mitigation plan due to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in November, said John Shively, the new CEO of Pebble Ltd. Partnership, the developer.
“We will meet that deadline,” he said.
Shively took the reins at the company when its previous CEO, Tom Collier, resigned after an embarrassing series of video interviews went public, giving new ammunition to groups opposing the project.
In a videotaped call with people masquerading as potential investors – they were really from an environmental group – Collier claimed to have special access to Alaska political leaders. The tapes set off a political uproar in Alaska which led to Collier’s resignation.
Shively, a former Pebble executive and state natural resources commissioner, was asked to step in for political damage control and to keep the project on track for critical federal permits.
After the tapes were released Alaska politicians hurried to distance themselves from the project. In an Oct. 15 speech to the Alaska Federation of Natives Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski said she will take steps in Congress to block the project.
“I recognize the need for new economic development in southwest Alaska. I think we all do, but I simply think this is the wrong mine in the wrong place. The administration has said that Pebble cannot be permitted as proposed, and I agree with that,” Murkowski said, although the Army corps has not yet issued a final decision that Pebble cannot be permitted.
“I plan to build on my appropriations language from last year to ensure that the Bristol Bay region remains protected,” the senator said. Presumably, such an action would involve the Congress cutting funds for the Corps of Engineers’ work on the Pebble permits.
“But while we may have stopped Pebble today, I think now is the time to start thinking about the future. We need longer-term protections for the region that can also provide enduring value for Alaskans. And I’m planning on working on this in this next Congress,” Murkowski said in her speech.
Salmon State, an environmental group, is urging Murkowski to support a veto of the project by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency under its Clean Water Act Section 404c authority. “We need the senator to put our fears and distrust to rest by taking the shackles off the EPA and allowing EPA scientists to issue a 404c veto of the toxic Pebble Mine,” said SalmonState executive director Tim Bristol.
Alaska’s other senator, Dan Sullivan, says he now opposes Pebble but Don Young, Alaska’s lone congressman, says the federal permit process should be allowed to play out. Also, Pebble is on state-owned lands so the state should be allowed to weigh in on the decision, Young said recently.
The wetlands mitigation plan is required by the Army corps before the agency will issue a Record of Decision on a Final Environmental Impacts Statement for Pebble. The “ROD” will formally establish mitigation and other requirements and clear the way for a critical Section 404 dredge and fill permit issued under the federal Clean Water Act.
“The ROD is our top priority,” Shively said. “It will show that the corps believes we can build this mine safely.” Permits from the state of Alaska are also needed including an important dam safety permit, which would be issued by the state Dept. of Natural Resources under federal guidelines.
Shively said he believes the corps has written a strong environmental impact statement that shows the mine can coexist with fish. “The EIS was issued by a professional agency and prepared by a respected third party contractor,” which was AECON, he said.
The corps has also set an unusually high standard for the mitigation plan, requiring that all of the wetlands impacts be mitigated in the same watershed in which the mine would be built, Shively said. This is unusual for Alaska but common in the Lower 48 states, but an important difference is that in other states there is damaged wetland acreage that can be repaired or rehabilitated as part of a developer’s mitigation plan.
In most parts of rural Alaska including the Pebble area the wetlands are pristine, with no damage to be repaired, so it’s a high hurdle for the project to deal with, Shively said.