Energy & Environment

Trump administration denies permit for controversial Pebble Mine

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has denied a permit for the Pebble Mine on Wednesday, likely dealing a lethal blow to the controversial project in Alaska’s Bristol Bay.

The decision on the proposed gold and copper mine is a victory for environmentalists, Native American groups, and the state’s commercial fishing industry, all of which opposed the project.

In a statement, the Corps said it “determined that the applicant’s plan for the discharge of fill material does not comply with Clean Water Act guidelines and concluded that the proposed project is contrary to the public interest.”

Opponents had argued the open-pit mine would leach sediment into nearby waters, harming the state’s salmon population while scarring pristine wilderness.

“Sometimes a project is so bad, so indefensible, that the politics fall to the wayside and we get the right decision. That is what happened today,” Tim Bristol, executive director of SalmonState, which promotes Alaska’s salmon industry, said in a statement. 

The decision to deny the permit is a departure from some previous findings. The Corps concluded in a July assessment that the proposed project would not affect salmon harvests in the area. That finding was a reversal from an Obama-era determination that it would.

The Pebble Partnership, the company developing the mine, said it plans to appeal the decision.

“We are obviously dismayed by today’s news given that the USACE had published an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) in July that clearly stated the project could successfully co-exist with the fishery and would have provided substantial economic benefit to the communities closest to the deposit. One of the real tragedies of this decision is the loss of economic opportunities for people living in the area,” company CEO John Shively said in a statement.

The decision follows mixed messaging from the Trump administration.

President Trump had pledged to look at “both sides” of the issue shortly after his son, Donald Trump Jr., spoke out against the project.

“The headwaters of Bristol Bay and the surrounding fishery are too unique and fragile to take any chances with. #PebbleMine,” the president’s son tweeted in August.

Environmental groups are now calling on the incoming Biden administration to take further steps to protect the Bristol Bay area.

“This region has been whip-sawed with uncertainty about its fate for a decade, and this move recognizes there was never any way to mitigate the harm Pebble Mine would do,” the Natural Resources Defense Council said in a statement, urging the Environmental Protection Agency to use the Clean Water Act “to permanently protect this national treasure from large scale mining for all time.

Biden has said he opposes the project.

“Bristol Bay has been foundational to the way of life of Alaska Natives for countless generations, provides incredible joy for recreational anglers from across the country, and is an economic powerhouse that supplies half of the world’s wild sockeye salmon. It is no place for a mine,” Biden said in a statement over the summer.

The Corps stressed that it’s three-year decision-making process “reflects a regulatory process that is fair, flexible and balanced.”

Trump said over the summer there would be “no politics” in the review process.

Comments from Alaska’s delegation seemed to stress that same message.

“This is the right decision, reached the right way. It should validate our trust and faith in the well-established permitting process used to advance resource development projects throughout Alaska,” Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) said in a statement, calling it “the wrong mine in the wrong place.”

Murkowski’s opposition to the project came into clearer focus over the summer, when an environmental group released secretly-recorded tapes that showed then-Pebble CEO Tom Collier bragging about his close relationship with government officials.

Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) was the only member of the delegation to express reservations over the decision, calling it a state issue.

“Although I thank the Army Corps of Engineers for their work and am confident that they faithfully followed the process, I remain disappointed that the federal government gets to decide before Alaskans do,” he said in a statement arguing they should be able to mine responsibly.

“Now there must be a consideration of how the federal government will compensate the State for the loss of economic potential. The proposed mine has always been subject to political intrigue and the whims of outsiders who simply do not understand our state.”

Updated at 3:24 p.m.

Tags Alaska Don Young Donald Trump Lisa Murkowski Pebble Mine U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

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