By MARK HAMILTON
I’m not going to speculate exactly what happened.
Representing Pebble mine for three years, I spent far too much time dealing with speculation by opponents with no basis in fact.
I have no facts, no smoking gun. But something happened.
After nearly two years, and after the publication of the draft environmental impact statement and only months before the final environmental impact statement, the Army Corps of Engineers and its cooperating agencies determined that the alternative preferred by the developer was not the Least Environmentally Damaging Practical Alternative.
The developer’s preferred plan was to take the concentrate by road to the North Ferry Terminal, load it on an ice-breaking ferry, across the lake to be re-loaded on trucks to the port. It was a unique approach that avoided by a factor of nearly half of the road crossings, bridges, and culverts of a land route.
The Corps decided that the Northern route was the preferred route. This is after nearly two years after having the developer’s preference.
The adjustments were significant, not the least of which was the known-to-everyone difficulty in securing rights of passage in the northern route.
There were a couple of related events that may have had an influence on this late switch.
Only a few weeks later, Environmental Protection Agency had coming due a “request for elevation.”
This seldom-used request amounted to a judgment that “this project is too difficult to handle at the regional level” so we request it is elevated to the federal level.
EPA chose not to send the request. Instead, they published a letter explaining why they chose not to. That letter amounts to a “bromance” letter with EPA, showering praise on the Corp of Engineers and the way the discussions were being handled.
Almost from that day, relationships with the Corps of Engineers cooled noticeably, nowhere near unprofessional, but a bit more curt and distant.
Something had happened.
The difficult adjustment was carried out with the project and the final EIS reflected the handling of those adjustments.
Any project would have been thrilled to receive the final EIS that the Pebble project received. Yet, the standard requirement for a mitigation plan was presented with especially harsh rhetoric.
Mitigation plans are always required as part of the process, and always come at the end of the process to account for adjustments in the plan needed to comply with various regulatory interpretations.
The response from our U.S. senators took no note of the excellent report, involving eight federal agencies and three state agencies, which reported that the mine was environmentally sound (with substantial call outs of innovation). Instead, their take was essentially. “This plan cannot be permitted until the developer presents a mitigation plan.”
It sounded to me like a “Don’t give up haters, we still have another chance” message.
Mitigation plans are a reasonable and appropriate way to deal with the certainty that some environmental damage will be done by any road or any development. Normally, the reasoning would direct, “you impacted this amount of wetlands; give us a plan you have for creating or restoring a small multiple of that.”
The mitigation plan that was required was very much a surprise. The Corp required a very high multiple of impacted wetlands: 10 times. That is way out of line with recent requirements. The Donlin mine had a multiple of about 2.
But that only makes it harder. It was the restrictions that came with it that makes one wonder.
Let me pause for a moment and further describe how mitigation is dealt with in the Lower 48. There, they have “mitigation banks,” which are essentially sites that have been polluted or otherwise compromised by historical developments. The developer can select the project or projects needed to meet the requirements of mitigation.
Some of these are quite demanding. For instance, in an old fuel storage area where leaking tanks have polluted the area, the developer may have to dig 40 or 50 feet into the ground and treat (sometimes burn) the dirt that can be cleaned, and dispose of the soil that cannot be treated. In the end, the ground is near its original state. They have whole companies whose job it is to respond to these requirements.
In Alaska there are few such polluted sites (although there are a few remaining from WWII fueling sites that are very polluted and very remote).
In any case, there was no option for mitigation banks at the Pebble site. There is no polluted ground there. There isn’t even a four-wheel track.
The requirement was that all mitigation would be done “in kind,” which means impact on wetlands needed to be returned 10 times in wetlands. That would have been doable by buying up land to be turned into a preserve. That in itself would be a bad precedent for Alaska, which has 85% of federal wildlife area already.
But there was more: All of the mitigation had to be done in the Koktuli river drainage. The only possible solution was the buying up of land in the Koktuli drainage and making it a preserve. That is essentially what Pebble proposed and was rebuffed.
It was clear to all that the mitigation was made impossible on purpose.
I don’t know what exactly; but something happened. We will probably never know what it was, but we know from the final environmental impact statement what it was not: It was not a threat to salmon, it was not a threat to rupture the tailings facility, it was not an earthquake risk, it was not toxic.
It was a good mine that could have provided jobs for a very long time, brought a higher standard of living to all around the lake, and brought dollars to the state treasury.
I don’t know what happened, but I know why. A majority of Alaskans were fooled. Once that happens, no one will wait for the science. Politicians will turn against the proposed project following the will of the people. One email from EPA had it right from the beginning: “It’s not about science, it’s politics.”
You were “Pebbled” Alaska. Don’t ever let them do that again.
The “Pebbled” series at Must Read Alaska is authored by Mark Hamilton. After 31 years of service to this nation, Hamilton retired as a Major General with the U. S. Army in July of 1998. He served for 12 years as President of University of Alaska, and is now President Emeritus. He worked for the Pebble Partnership for three years before retiring.