November 28, 2020
By Bill Bowers
In a landmark decision, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) has denied a crucial permit for the proposed Pebble Mine in Alaska’s Bristol Bay region. Fly fishers, hunters, guides, lodge operators, commercial fishermen, and conservation groups who have been fighting the project for years were elated at the decision.
On Wednesday November 25, USACE announced that “. . . the applicant’s plan for the discharge of fill material does not comply with Clean Water Act guidelines.” Col. Damon Delarosa, USACE’s Alaska district commander, stated that “. . . the proposed project is contrary to the public interest.”
Pebble Mine’s parent company, Northern Dynasty Minerals of Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, called the decision “politically motivated” and vowed an administrative appeal. Northern Dynasty’s stock price plunged at the permit denial news, selling at 40 cents per share in late Wednesday trading in New York.
Northern Dynasty believes the proposed mine site—located on state land about 200 miles south of Anchorage—contains one of the world’s largest deposits of gold and copper ore. Pebble would be an immense open pit mine as much as 4,000 feet deep. Retrieving the metals would require digging out and processing at least 10 billion tons of rock, and confining the toxic tailings in ponds behind massive dams. The company also planned to construct a natural gas pipeline 165 miles long to provide power for the mine, as well as 80 miles of pipelines and access roads.
The project’s numerous critics have long contended that the mine’s potential economic benefits do not justify the risk of destroying the Bristol Bay region’s pristine wilderness environment and prolific salmon runs. The Alaska Department of Natural Resources estimates that 52 million sockeye salmon entered the region’s rivers to spawn in 2020. The runs of sockeyes (along with coho, Chinook, pink, and chum salmon) support a vast ecosystem and one of the most renowned sport and commercial fishing industries in the world.
Alaska’s Republican U.S. senators, Dan Sullivan and Lisa Murkowski, have both expressed opposition to the Pebble Mine. “This is the right decision, reached the right way,” stated Murkowski after the USACE announcement. Murkowski’s office said she is exploring ways to achieve protection for the region in perpetuity.
“It would have been a catastrophe had it proceeded,” said Tarquin Millington-Drake, managing director of Frontiers UK (frontierstrvl.co.uk).
Pebble Mine opponents vowed to continue fighting. “Permit denial by USACE is not same as a Clean Water Act veto from EPA. That’s the real goal,” said Sportsman’s Alliance for Alaska Director Scott Hed. “Without CWA veto, Pebble or someone else can come back with different plans and reapply. Pebble’s like the movie monster that doesn’t seem to ever be completely dead. Time to keep working and find ways to nail the coffin shut.”
Wild Salmon Center (wildsalmoncenter.org) CEO Guido Rahr agreed. “Today’s decision gives the people of Bristol Bay temporary relief from this mine. It’s now time for EPA to use the Clean Water Act to kill this mine once and for all.”
Pat Pendergast, director of international travel at The Fly Shop in Redding, California (theflyshop.com), noted that The Fly Shop was one of the first fly-fishing companies to make a stand against Pebble, a dozen years ago. “We answered the call when Felt Soul Media asked us to sponsor Red Gold , the award-winning film exposing the Pebble Mine for what it really is,” said Pendergast. “The battle to stop Pebble Mine brought together groups sometimes at conflict with each other—hunters, sport fishers, commercial fishermen, Indigenous corporations, environmentalists, and conservation organizations—to speak with one voice. We are proud to be a part of that message,” Pendergast added.
Orvis Company President Simon Perkins (orvis.com) said: “Thank you to all who came together and made their voices heard to keep one of the world’s great watersheds pristine. Today, Bristol Bay is one step closer to being a protected American treasure that sustains local communities and industries and that outdoor enthusiasts can enjoy and experience for generations to come.”
“Good riddance,” said Nelli Williams, Alaska director of Trout Unlimited. “The opposition to this project from all corners of the political spectrum runs strong and deep. The science is clear, the process has played out, and there is no way this ill-conceived project can coexist with Bristol Bay salmon.”
Tia Shoemaker was raised in the Bristol Bay wilderness, and helps operate her family’s business, Grizzly Skins of Alaska (grizzlyskinsofalaska.com). She guides both fly fishers and big-game hunters. “The news of the permit being denied felt like a great weight lifted off the planet,” Shoemaker said.
She agreed that the fight is not over. “We have not seen the last of Pebble or something similar. Our human desire for gold and copper seems to outweigh our common sense, and I don’t think we have fought our last battle against a foreign mine trying to extract the resources buried beneath the earth in the Bristol Bay Region.
“But I’m most grateful for how this decision will affect future hunters and anglers, kids who will still know the joys of catching and eating a wild salmon,” Shoemaker added.