Bristol Bay Mine Could Benefit from Fast-Track Permitting Process

The proposed Pebble Mine site (Northern Dynasty)

Published Jan 15, 2020 9:49 PM by The Maritime Executive

According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, an upcoming decision by an obscure federal committee would allow fast-tracked environmental permitting for mining projects.The news comes as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers moves ahead with a highly controversial permitting process for the Pebble Mine, a gold and copper project at the headwaters of Bristol Bay, Alaska, the home of the world's largest salmon fishery. 

"Fast-tracking environmental review for [mining] projects will only increase the risks of harm to people and wildlife. Mining in Bristol Bay, Alaska, for example, would threaten the world’s most productive salmon fishery, in a quest for gold and copper," said Taryn Kiekow Heimer, a senior advocate with the Natural Resources Defense Council.

In 2015, the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act (FAST Act) created a new federal coordinating body known as the Federal Infrastructure Permitting Improvement Steering Council (FPISC). Both FAST and its new council were intended to streamline permitting for big-ticket "high priority infrastructure projects" like highways, pipelines and electrical transmission lines. For covered projects, the FAST Act places limits on public comment periods during the environmental impact statement (EIS) process, caps agencies' permit decision timeline and shortens the statute of limitations for litigation. 

The Act does not explicitly cover the mining industry, but it includes language allowing the addition of "any other sector as determined by a majority vote" of the FPISC. 
According to NRDC, this council - composed of appointees from about two dozen federal agencies - is now voting to add mining as a covered sector.

"Projects that pose such potential danger to our waterways, lands, and communities should be scrutinized not rushed. And expanding the council’s reach without notice and public comment is both illegal and absurd," said Heimer. 

Controversial development

The Pebble proposal is backed by Northern Dynasty Minerals, an NYSE-listed firm sharing an address and a management team with Canadian mining company Hunter Dickinson. The mine was first proposed in the 2000s, and it has faced stiff opposition from salmon fishermen and Bristol Bay residents for years. After the EPA reversed a 2014 decision halting permitting on the mine, a draft EIS from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was completed and released in February 2019. The final EIS is expected in mid-2020. The draft document is largely favorable to the mine's development, and it drew considerable controversy

“[The new EIS] completely omits local concerns and doesn’t take seriously many of the impacts that our people would feel from this project,” said United Tribes of Bristol Bay executive director Alannah Hurley last year. “It completely ignores collective impacts of any potential spills, of tailings failure. The fact that the Army Corps would even put this out, and call it a draft EIS at this point is so astounding, and insulting to the people of Bristol Bay.”

Former mining executives and other federal agencies have also voiced concern about the permitting process. "The draft EIS released in 2019 does not even meet industry standard practice. It lacks critical detail and contains an unacceptable number of deficiencies, omissions and errors. In many cases its conclusions are clearly wrong," wrote Rich Borden, the former head of environment for Rio Tinto’s Copper and Diamonds Product Group in an op-ed for the Anchorage Daily News. "The deep flaws in the EIS have been forcefully highlighted by agencies of the Trump Administration, including the Department of the Interior, Environmental Protection Agency, Fish and Wildlife Service, and National Marine Fisheries Service."

In its most recent investor prospectus, Northern Dynasty indicates that with a "highly favourable Draft EIS" and a "strategic alignment at federal and state level," "federal permits appear imminent" for the Pebble Mine. The firm believes that its development and operation pose little risk to the Bristol Bay watershed.