The Army Corps of Engineers on Wednesday denied a permit for the Alaska pebble mine project, possibly dealing a fatal blow to the long controversial project.
In a statement, the Corps said it “has determined that the applicant’s plan for the disposal of backfill material did not comply with Clean Water Act guidelines and concluded that the proposed project was contrary to the public interest.
The decision, the agency said, “reflects a fair, flexible and balanced regulatory process.”
The decision over the proposed gold and copper mine in remote southwestern Alaska is a victory for Indigenous groups, environmentalists, the state’s fishing industry and others who opposed the project.
Opponents said the large open pit operation, which would dig up and process tens of millions of tonnes of rock per year, would irreversibly harm the salmon breeding grounds that are the basis of a sport fishing industry. and a great commercial fishing near Bristol. Bay. Salmon is also a major staple food for Alaska Natives in the region.
“The Corps’ denial of the Pebble mine permit is a victory for common sense,” said Chris Wood, managing director of conservation group Trout Unlimited. “Bristol Bay is not the right place for industrial scale mining.”
In a statement, John Shively, acting managing director of the project developer, Pebble Limited Partnership, said the partnership “Focus on sorting out the next steps in the project, including an appeal of the decision.”
Mr. Shively described the Corps’ action as “politically motivated,” particularly that earlier this year, the Corps had approved an environmental impact statement this, he said, “made it clear that the project could successfully coexist with the fishery and would have provided substantial economic benefits.
In July, the Corps, which had the authority to approve a permit under the federal Clean Water Act, approved an environmental impact statement on the project that said it would not harm permanently to the fishing industry. But weeks later, the Corps said the company’s plan to offset environmental damage from the mine was insufficient and called for a new mitigation plan.
The new plan, which was not made public but believed to designate land near the mine for permanent protection, was submitted last week.
The fight for the fate of what is one of the world’s largest deposits of copper and gold has been raging for more than a decade. The mining industry and many state officials supported the project for the income and other economic benefits it would bring. But some prominent Alaskan politicians, including Republican Senator Lisa J. Murkowski, have gone without commitment, saying the mine should only move forward if it can be shown to be respectful of the environment.
The project was effectively scuttled by the Obama administration, only to be revived by Trump’s White House. Under the Trump administration, the Environmental Protection Agency overturned an earlier decision, allowing the Corps’ environmental review to continue.
But support among Republicans has never been more blameless than it has been for some other projects with potential environmental consequences, including potential oil and gas drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, also in Alaska.
The Pebble project even generated a rare dispute within the Trump family. In August Donald Trump Jr., an avid sportsman who has fished in the Bristol Bay area, tweeted his opposition to the mine: “The sources of Bristol Bay and the surrounding fishery are too unique and fragile to take risks. #PebbleMine. “
President Trump, asked over the next few days about his son’s feelings and the prospects for the project, said only that he would “look at both sides” of the issue and that politics would play no part in any decision. Privately, however, administration officials said they expected the permit to be approved.
But in September, the future of the multibillion-dollar project was cast in doubt when secret records from company executives suggested they were planning a much larger mine, and one that would run much longer, than that. that had been proposed to the Corps.
The recordings were obtained by an environmental advocacy group, with two members posing as potential investors in the project meeting by video with two project directors. Executives described how the mine could operate for 160 years or more beyond the proposed 20 years, and how its production could double after the first two decades.
Following the recordings, one of the executives, Tom Collier, managing director of the Pebble Partnership, resigned.