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If there’s any question that money is directly tied to resource management, look no further than the Dakota Access Pipeline, Keystone XL pipeline and the Pebble Mine. Two of them were dormant for a while, and the first was on hold.

No longer.

That the proposed Pebble Mine in Bristol Bay, Alaska has reared its ugly head again is both alarming and telling. It is alarming because the project, which had been on life support for years, directly threatens one of the world’s largest and last wild sockeye salmon runs. It is telling that the changing political climate has created an atmosphere more weighted toward corporate profits and against environmental protections.

Sockeye approaching spawning beds. Photo: Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Authority

The massive copper and gold mine again became a discussion topic earlier this week when its sole investor, Northern Dynasty, claimed it expected to have its permitting issues resolved with the EPA by April, and that it was actively seeking an investor.

Northern Dynasty has been mired in three federal lawsuits aimed at handcuffing the EPA’s authority to reject the mine’s permit because the mine would violate protections in the Clean Water Act. In 2014, the EPA ruled the mine presents a potentially irreversible threat to the stability of the Bristol Bay watershed. At the moment, Northern Dynasty’s only on-site operations include geology tests and equipment storage.

Not surprisingly, three days after the new administration took office, Northern Dynasty’s CEO Ronald Thiessen said President Donald Trump’s administration has “a desire to permit Pebble.” He added, “We will come to a resolution within 100 days” with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Copper mine in Utah run by Rio Tinto, which backed out of the Pebble Mine. If built, Pebble would be bigger than this. Photo: Deep Green Resistance

Opposition to the mine has been surprisingly universal from a broad range of user groups. That’s likely because Bristol Bay’s salmon population supports 14,000 full-time jobs and a $1.5 billion a year industry, according to federal and industry figures. In a rare instance, commercial and recreational fishermen are speaking with one voice: “Don’t destroy one of the last significant wild sockeye salmon populations!” Many of Alaska’s tribal leaders and several environmental groups have joined the chorus.

Is this Fake News?

That depends. To date I’ve seen no direct statement from the president saying he was going to drive the Pebble Mine through to operation. I’ve only seen Northern Dynasty say that.

If noted anti-resource attorney Scott Pruitt becomes head of the EPA, that could streamline federal permit approval, which accounts for a small number of significant permits.

That leaves the state of Alaska, which would have to issue more than 60 permits before the mine begins in earnest. And that won’t necessarily be an easy process for Northern Dynasty. An interesting political sea change has occurred in the past two years. Prior to the election the mine’s biggest opponent was the Obama administration and the EPA, while the Alaska state legislature was more supportive of the mine.

Photo: EPA

The tables flipped a bit in Nov. when the State House gained a bipartisan majority, with the Speaker of the House being from Bristol Bay. So while the federal administration appears to favor projects like the mine, the governor’s office and much of the legislature are signaling support for the state’s natural resources like salmon.

“Pebble doesn’t necessarily have an EPA problem,” says Sam Snyder, Trout Unlimited Alaska Engagement Director and a key figure in the fight against the mine. “But they have an Alaska problem. Sixty-five percent of Alaska residents in every precinct voted against it. Bristol Bay Tribes, villages and residents overwhelmingly oppose Pebble. Eventually this will also have to go through the state legislature.”

Photo: Seafood News

Here are some harsh realities that make the approval process a steep uphill climb for Northern Dynasty:

  • The political climate in Alaska has brought more scrutiny of the environmental risks of such a mine. The legislature recently put a 90-day delay on a routine permit to allow Northern Dynasty to maintain base operations (testing and equipment storage on site, etc.), because lawmakers wanted a closer look at impacts.
  • While there have been several reports about Northern Dynasty’s stock performance in the past few weeks since the Trump victory, there is context. Yes, the stock jumped nearly 300% in that time … from 75 cents to $2.89 on Jan. 26. That is a shell of the $22 stock price the company had in Feb. of 2011. It’s a penny stock.
  • Two major partners have backed away from the project because of widespread opposition and losses: Anglo American, PLC in 2013 and Rio Tinto in 2014.
  • In 2014, 65% of Alaskans approved a measure that would allow the legislature to ban mines lawmakers believe would harm wild salmon stocks. So a majority of Alaskans are skeptical.
  • That opposition continues. There is support for a new proposal to strengthen laws governing protection of fisheries habitats, which would have to be considered with any state permit for development that impacts salmon habitat.
Sockeye drying. Photo: Bob Waldrop

What does this all mean? It means there are several roadblocks and years before the mine would have any chance of operation … if at all. Northern Dynasty would likely have to spend close to $200 million dollars just to secure all of the necessary permits. It would then need another several hundred million dollars to begin operations.

It also means that opposition must continue, within and without the state of Alaska, if opponents want to ensure the safety of the resource.

As the current mantra goes: wrong mine, wrong place.

Top photo credit: Robert Glenn Ketchum

Other resources:

Save Bristol Bay : Good resource for background and the mine’s impacts.

One Fish Blog: Further background

Homer News: Public comments on state fisheries protections.

Alaska Daily News OpEd: Wrong mine, wrong place.