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Today in Bristol Bay, Alaska, fishermen are pulling some of the season’s last wild sockeye salmon from the bay. Also today, the US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) is publishing a document with major implications for those salmon and the people who depend on them. That document, two years in the making, is the final environmental impact statement (EIS) for the Pebble Mine, a proposed copper and gold mine set to be built among the tributaries that drain into Bristol Bay and its US $1.5-billion sockeye fishery.
Just a week ago, the Trump administration finalized a sweeping overhaul of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the 50-year-old bedrock environmental law that mandates environmental reviews and public input for major projects like the Pebble Mine. The goal was to streamline the process, and it did so by limiting the depth and scope of environmental reviews; limiting the participation of tribes, the public, and other agencies; and by making it more difficult and potentially more expensive for the public to appeal a decision, according to Erin Whalen, an attorney with nonprofit environmental law firm Earthjustice.
Critics of the Pebble Mine’s relatively short environmental review process have been quick to draw parallels between the new NEPA rules and what they say they experienced engaging with USACE even before the law’s overhaul.
“I think Bristol Bay is the poster child for the Trump administration gutting the NEPA process. The truncated timeline, two and a half years, is literally a fraction of the usual time frame that this type of analysis takes,” says Alannah Hurley, a Yup’ik woman who grew up in Bristol Bay. By comparison, the environmental review for another gold mine in southwest Alaska, Donlin Gold, took six years.
Hurley is the executive director of the United Tribes of Bristol Bay, a consortium of 15 tribal governments representing 80 percent of the region’s residents, most of whom still practice subsistence hunting, fishing, and gathering. “For us this is a human rights issue, this is an Indigenous rights issue,” she adds.
“To be honest, from a tribal perspective, the NEPA process wasn’t that great to begin with,” says Hurley. “So for it to now be even worse, and harder for the public and tribal governments to engage in that process to ensure that impacts to their communities are considered, is astounding. It’s infuriating.”
The new NEPA rules are expected to face legal challenges and will likely not apply directly to the Pebble proposal. But the open pit mine’s accelerated assessment may serve as a preview of what this new streamlined process could look like for future mines, oil pipelines, and highways, says Brian Litmans, legal director for Trustees for Alaska, an Alaska-focused nonprofit environmental law firm.
“I think Pebble [Mine] can be used as a precursor of things to come,” he says.
Under the new NEPA rules, the government has set a goal of two years for completing environmental reviews, though it allows for exceptions. That’s two and a half years shorter than the federal average and sharply compresses the timeline for gathering and analyzing data; preparing each version of the EIS; and hearing and incorporating feedback from the public, tribal governments, and agencies like the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). That also, theoretically, puts new pressure on developers to come to the process better prepared with baseline data and project details, a lack of which can cause delays.
Many of the changes to NEPA go well beyond anything seen in the Pebble Mine review, says Whalen, including eliminating requirements to analyze a project’s long-term cumulative impacts, such as its contributions to climate change.
Litmans says that though USACE was under no legal pressure to move the Pebble Mine through the NEPA process as quickly as it has, the agency’s aggressive timeline helped lead to a “faulty, lacking analysis” and restricted opportunities for other agencies and the public to weigh in.
In March, for example, the Curyung Tribal Council told USACE that “45 days was not sufficient time to review and provide meaningful feedback” on an earlier version of the Pebble Mine’s EIS, citing the breadth of the changes and the unfolding COVID-19 pandemic.
For the Pebble Limited Partnership (PLP), the firm developing the Pebble Mine, a faster NEPA process, even without the new rules, has sped it toward the possibility of securing permission under the Clean Water Act, which in turn would pave the way for other permits and eventually breaking ground.
With the final EIS released today, a decision on a Clean Water Act permit is at least 30 days away. USACE says PLP has not yet submitted a final mitigation plan for offsetting the mine’s impacts. And the public will not be able to comment on the final EIS or mitigation plan when it arrives.
On July 15, PLP CEO Tom Collier praised work by the army corps, calling special attention to the permitting timeline, saying in a statement: “Throughout this review process, the USACE has closely tracked their timeline and public projections for process milestones.”
For Collier, a lot of money is on the line should USACE greenlight the project this year. According to a US Securities and Exchange Commission filing, Collier will personally receive a $12.5-million bonus if the corps approves a federal permit for the mine within four years. Since 2007, PLP has spent more than $15-million lobbying the federal government, dropping over half that amount during President Trump’s tenure, according to US Senate lobbying reports compiled by advocacy group Cook Inletkeeper.