Trump should allow resource development in Alaska's Pebble Mine

After two and a half years of review, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' Final Environmental Impact Statement was published in July.  It determined that the Pebble Mine project can successfully meet strict federal regulatory and environmental standards and that the mining project would have no discernable impact on returning salmon and no affect on commercial fisheries in Bristol Bay.

  • The mine is not at the headwaters of Bristol Bay — as is often wrongly portrayed in photographs. It's 230 miles away by river, or 100 miles by air, from Bristol Bay, and only touches three very small tributaries at the uppermost reaches, of the more than 50,000 tributaries.  Nor are the tailings toxic, as sometimes claimed; rather, they are natural byproducts that will be kept in a lined facility before being returned to the earth after closure.  They present no failure risk or threat to downstream habitat.
  • Pebble is not the largest mine in Alaska, and its footprint (5.3 square miles) is a minuscule 0.013% of the entire Bristol Bay area.
  • It is also on state land that Alaska specifically set aside for natural resource development.

As a normal established part of the EIS and permitting process, the Pebble Mine project had submitted comprehensive draft mitigation and compensatory mitigation plans for minimizing and avoiding impacts to wetlands, air, wildlife and aquatic habitat, areas of cultural significance and local use, and restoring areas temporarily impacted by mining activities.  These proposed mitigation plans were incorporated into Pebble Mine's project design and application and were discussed in the Army Corps's final EIS, outlined in Table 5-2, pages 6–52.

As is part of the permitting process, after an EIS is issued and the project is moving forward, a final mitigation plan is submitted for the potentially impacted areas identified in the Army Corps's EIS.  The Army Corp determination that the project would have no real environmental impact on salmon or commercial fisheries identified 2,825 acres of wetlands and 129.5 miles of streams at the mine site for Pebble to include in its final mitigation plan. It sent a letter to that effect on August 20. The Pebble Limited Partnership had already planned to preserve wetlands several times larger than what might be disturbed.

  • To put these nearly 3,000 acres into perspective, they represent 0.0017% of Alaska's wetlands.  Alaska's wetlands are incredibly vast and cover about 43% of the surface of the entire state.
  • The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation's Alaska Wetland Program Plan for sustainably managing wetlands states that Alaska's wetlands cover about 174 million acres.  No rational person would believe that an area 0.0017% this size (that will be mitigated, too) will have "devastating environmental impacts."  Nor is there any science to support such a fear.

But environmental activists, and now billionaires with political connections, want us to believe just that. They've joined forces with media to pressure President Trump to ignore science and decades of research and public input and bypass the regulatory process to block the mine. Politico, Bloomberg, and countless other news outlets have suddenly all come out with stories proclaiming the demise of the Pebble Mine project, claiming that the president will pre-emptively block it and that the Army Corps of Engineers is holding up the project for years.

The Daily Signal similarly misrepresented the Pebble Mine permitting process while ignoring facts and giving the false impression that the project lacked objective scientific analysis and reviews or public input.  It even echoed media stories falsely insinuating that the Army Corps was biased and failed to follow established regulatory processes.  In truth, this process began decades ago with over 15 years of environmental research.  Using data compiled from 2004 and 2008, for example, the Pebble Environmental Baseline Document analyzed the physical, biological, and social environments of potentially impacted mine areas within the Bristol Bay and Cook Inlet regions, including hydrology, fish, wildlife, seismic, and wetland examinations.  It was written by third-party independent authors, more than 40 of the most widely recognized and respected independent research firms, and included over 100 scientific experts, engineering groups, laboratories, and others with specific areas of expertise and Alaskan experience.  The document is approximately 20,000 pages, with 53 chapters plus appendices and updates.

It is one of the most comprehensive environmental studies ever done for a natural resource project in Alaska.

Why should the Pebble Mine project concern each and every American?  National security is one reason.

  • Right now, the United States is completely reliant on foreign countries for twenty critically needed minerals, including rare earth elements.  Our reliance on foreign mineral imports has increased 250% in just the past 60 years, according to the USGS National Minerals Information Center.
  • Over a third of the copper we need is imported, for example, and it's essential for electrical wiring, cables, electronic devices, motors, telecommunications, microwaves, and most everything we use in modern life.  The average single-family home in North America uses over 439 pound of copper, and our need for copper is expected to increase with the growth of green energies, which rely heavily on copper.
  • Currently, the U.S. imports over $37.6 billion a month in copper alone from China, according to Trade Economics.
  • Pebble Mine is one of the largest reserves of minerals and copper discovered in the world.  It also holds billions of pounds of molybdenum, gold, silver, palladium, rhenium, and other critical metallic minerals such as pyrite, chalcopyrite, molybdenite,  bornite, covellite, chalcocite, digenite, and magnetite.

Those who've followed the Pebble Mine project over these past decades recognize how environmentally sound, socially responsible, and economically viable it is.  Whether President Trump will follow politics or science is yet to be seen.

Sandy Szwarc, BSN, R.N. is a researcher and writer on health and science issues for more than 30 years.

Correction 08-28-20 21:50 EDT: A previous edition of this post understated the number of miles of streams included in the Army Corps of Engineers' final mitigation plan for Pebble Mine.  The error has been corrected.

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