Photo by Louis Cahill
By Dan Frasier
Be warned, the Pebble Mine is not a settled issue.
The risks to one of the most important watersheds on the planet are still very much alive. Progress has been made and Pebble’s backers frustrated, but they certainly aren’t done. In fact, they are mustering for another fight. And that’s why I’m about to talk about how the process works and where things stand. This is going to get a little involved and pretty technical. In fact, it’s going to be downright dry at some points. Why? Because, in the wake of the Lake Okeechobee disaster in South Florida, Brazil’s mine failure and countless other catastrophes, it couldn’t be more important that we understand how the political processes work, and what we can do to combat the business interests that use them. The operators on the other side are smart as hell, well funded, patient and motivated. To the extent that they understand the playing field better than us, we will continue to lose these fights at every turn. So what I’m writing to you today is part educational and part motivational. I want you to understand where things stand, why and what that means for the future. Because assuming victory now would be like turning our back on a wounded and cornered big cat. That is to say, unadvisable.
Pebble Mine has always been a concept.
We’ve treated and spoken about it like it was a business, or a big gaping hole in the ground, but it’s never been that. It’s been a proposal for nearly a decade. That’s what the entire fight has been about. How would foreign companies be allowed to remove the copper, gold, and other resources that lie in the earth at the headwaters of Bristol Bay? To complicate matters, Pebble Mine has never even reached the point of being entirely proposed. Complete permits have not been filed. Detailed plans have not been drawn. Thus far the fight has simply centered on what parameters the proposals will eventually need to meet. In other words, based on the very preliminary sketches of how the people that own the mining rights at Bristol Bay would like to proceed, the EPA decided to highlight some of the standards the fully completed proposal would have to meet. That’s how early we are in this fight. The rules of engagement are the only things being argued about thus far. We’re still deciding who gets what chess pieces. After the fight defining the rules gets settled the concepts for how to extract will be set forth and we will fight about those. The problem with concepts is that they are hard to kill and infinitely replaceable with another idea. So let’s take a step back and see how the real machinations of the Pebble Mine situation work.
We’ll start here. We know that there are about half a trillion dollars’ worth of natural resources buried in the ground on the proposed Pebble site. That’s a fact. It’s science, and it doesn’t do anyone much good to argue it. The State of Alaska knows that and they did what governments do with potentially developable resources. They sell the right to extract them to the highest bidder. These are mineral rights, or leases and they are traded every day. In this case, a company named Northern Dynasty Minerals, based in British Columbia, leased the rights to extract the minerals from the proposed Pebble site.
Northern Dynasty has neither the resources (think cash) nor the expertise to develop a grand scale mining operation. In fact, they don’t have anything. They are simply a corporation that owns one asset. That asset is the lease to mine at Pebble. Situations like that make governments a little nervous. They don’t want to lease valuable mineral rights to wildcatters or any other yahoo that can scrape a few bucks together. So in the lease agreement there will be provisions that require the company have the financial means and expertise to exploit those resources. Northern Dynasty did this by partnering with the three of the biggest copper mining firms on the planet, forming the Pebble Partnership. Three companies with more money than god and all the expertise on the planet on how to get metal out of rock and turn it into the wires in your iPhone. Established companies, big companies, necessary companies for our modern society to run. Anyway, these 3 powerhouses lined up to be the boots on the ground that, for a majority of the revenue, would develop and operate the mining operation and pay Northern Dynasty a cut for being the leaseholder. So far, so normal.
Enter the EPA.
In the normal course of events this Partnership would propose a specific method and plan for extracting the materials. The appropriate federal, state and local environmental and business agencies would then review those plans and either issue the permits and say “Have at it boys” or would suggest changes in methods until a compromise on the ‘How’ of extraction could be met. But that isn’t what happened here.
YOUR NOISE AND ACTIVISM, YOUR “NO PEBBLE MINE” DECALS… CHANGED THIS COURSE OF EVENTS.
Instead of waiting for and reviewing a complete proposal from the partnership, the EPA made a ruling in July 2014. They said, basically, that any proposal for a mine at the Pebble site must meet all 3 of the following criteria:
1. It can’t destroy more than five miles of salmon streams or 19 miles of tributaries without salmon.
2. It can’t fill in 1,100 or more acres of wetlands.
3. It shouldn’t re-route streams to more than 20 percent of the daily flow.
All three of these criteria must be met by any proposal in order for that proposal to not, on it’s face, violate the Clean Water Act. And that’s where shit hit the fan. See specifically the “LIMITS ON THE MINE” section for details on the exact proposed restrictions.
Northern Dynasty began wailing that those rules were effectively a preemptive kibosh on any proposal that they would set forth. They argue that the EPA basically changed the rules of the game, and made them so onerous as to preclude any mining, before the game even got started. They protested. By this point the 3 other partners in the proposed mining operation had already bailed, some paying huge exit fees or just donating all of their shares to charity. The writing had been on the wall for a while. All this leaves us back right where we started. Northern Dynasty, on life support and trying desperately to raise money, owns the rights to mine at Bristol.
Now here is where things get dangerous.
Northern Dynasty has filed a series of lawsuit alleging that the EPA should not be allowed to set forth the parameters it has. That it didn’t follow procedure and worse, that it shot down a proposal that was never made… violating its own processes for these matters. These are politically savvy dudes with cash, lawyers and a lot to lose. Remember, Northern Dynasty never was a mining company. The partners were the mining experts. Northern Dynasty hires lobbyists, not engineers. They’ve put equipment in Alaska up for sale. Alaskans are wondering if they can even remedy the environmental mess of their preliminary drilling. They’ll do anything to distract from the fact that Alaskans and especially the people who hunt and fish in Bristol Bay don’t want them around. They have spent millions on lawyers, lobbying the EPA, the EPA Inspector General, paying for so-called independent reports, and litigation and come up empty at each turn. Pebble has ceased to be a mining company and has become a weapon of mass distraction.
Last year, it used its lawsuit against the EPA as a tool to harass the Alaskan citizens and non-profits committed to protecting the waters of Bristol Bay with onerous subpoenas. The judge correctly quashed them.
See, if they can get the EPA guidelines overturned, those big time mining partners could come back. And if not them, then someone will. Like, perhaps, the Chinese government. If that occurs, we’ll be back where we were in the bleakest days of the fight. Oh and did I mention that there is an election coming up? That the EPA will answer to some newly elected official? That being whoever is our next President. The Northern Dynasty strategy seems to be to tie up everything in court so a ruling won’t be made until a new administration is in office. Perhaps an administration that would instruct the EPA to let their work in Bristol Bay go unfinished and gather dust in a file room or who, at least, may be more sympathetic to mining interests.
At all turns we’ve prevailed.
Be it on opinion in Alaska, the science, an Inspector General review, or a federal judge reviewing the other sides’ subpoenas – the facts and the science and the best interests of Alaskans has prevailed. And we think that will be the case in the end. If not in 2016, then in the next Administration. But we have to win every fight, whereas they only have to win one to get the one obstacle preventing development removed. Those three pesky EPA guidelines. It’s time the presidential candidates take a stand on this top priority issue for sportsmen and the EPA’s authority to limit the amount of environmental destruction a foreign mining interest is allowed to perpetrate on an American wilderness gem.
And that is where we stand.
The EPA, thanks to your efforts in a monumental and historically diverse grassroots campaign, was motivated to define the rules in a way that the bad guys didn’t like. That ruling seemed to stop the advancement of mining interests and caused Pebble to become financially toxic in the global mining world. But it is the only thing standing between the great earth moving machine and the pristine waters of the Bristol Bay watershed. It’s under attack in court, in Congress, and, potentially, from a new administration. If it’s overturned, we’re back where we started. So make no mistake, we haven’t won anything yet. A blow has been dealt, and a potentially fatal one, but the outcome is still far from certain. We will have to remain vigilant, stay informed and be ready to act…again.
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