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Feds deny permit for mine planned near pristine Alaska bay

The Nushagak River, draining into Bristol Bay in Alaska. (AlaskaTrekker via Wikipedia)

(CN) — In a major about-face, the Trump administration denied a vital permit for a proposed gold and copper mining operation in Alaska on Wednesday — finding the project would spoil thousands of acres of wetlands and open waters in violation of the Clean Water Act.

Plans for the Pebble Mine operation in southwest Alaska’s pristine Bristol Bay have been in the works for decades. The project would have meant undeveloped Alaskan wilderness would host a power plant, pipeline, miles of road to haul tons of debris and be marred by blasting, drilling and shoveling.

The operation would also include toxic storage ponds at the headwaters of the Bristol Bay watershed, imperiling salmon and all the creatures who depend on them.

Opposition to the project has been widespread including by environmental advocacy groups, President-elect Joe Biden, elected Alaskan officials and multiple native tribes who have fished sockeye salmon that run wild for generations.

This past July, the U.S. Army Corps released its Final Environmental Impact Statement that allowed the project to move ahead. The corps found the mining operation would have “no measurable impact” on the Bristol Bay watershed.

The corps walked that back in a letter to the developer in August, saying impact to the watershed was “unavoidable.” While the corps did not outright stop the project, it asked the mine developer how it would offset its despoliation of 3,285 acres of wetlands, 364 acres of open waters and 185 miles of streams.

Pebble Limited Partnership submitted its response to the corps, which was not made public. But on Wednesday, the corps denied the developer’s application under the Clean Water Act and the Rivers and Harbors Act.

“In its record of decision, USACE 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,” said Col. Damon Delarosa, Alaska district commander with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, in a statement.

In a letter to Pebble Limited Partnership vice president James Fueg announcing its decision, the corps said the “project is contrary to the public interest” and would have caused “significant degradation of the aquatic ecosystem.”

Wednesday’s decision by the corps was the result of three years of analysis which found the project would not comply with rule 404 of the Clean Water Act, which pertains to the disposal of materials.

In a statement, Pebble Limited said they would appeal the decision because the mining operation would provide resources for “the nation’s transition to more renewable sources of energy and a lower carbon future.”

The company added the denial was under “political influence” made in the eleventh hour.

But the political winds that might have once supported the mining operation have died down despite being touted by its developer as a job creator.

U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska said she would make it a priority to protect Bristol Bay as the head of the Senate Interior and Environmental Appropriations Subcommittee.

“I simply think it’s the wrong mine in the wrong place,” Murkowski, a Republican, said at the Alaska Federation of Natives virtual convention in October.

Opposition to the project is also a bipartisan issue as Biden said this past August the only reason the development was allowed to make it this far is because the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency under the Trump administration overturned Obama-era policy decisions.

“As president, I will do what President Trump has failed to do: listen to the scientists and experts to protect Bristol Bay — and all it offers to Alaska, our country, and the world,” said Biden in a statement.

While Wednesday’s decision might be a major victory for conservationists, residents and Alaskans who have opposed the project since it was first proposed in 2002, it doesn’t signal a death knell for Pebble Mine or future mining operations in the region.

Taryn Kiekow Heimer with the nonprofit Natural Resources Defense Council said the corps’ decision is the culmination of decades of work for advocacy groups, but she’s only cautiously optimistic at this time.

“Obviously, this is great news. It should have happened after the Army Corps looked at the mining project, but this is not the end. A permit denial is just that,” said Heimer when reached by phone.

Heimer said the Corps should have denied the permit process after it was made clear that the developers could not offset the damage to the ecosystem.

“It would have been impossible. Usually when you remediate something, you fix something else,” said Heimer. “But there’s nothing to fix up there. There’s nothing to mitigate. It’s pristine land.”