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Trump administration facing criticism on environmental assessment of Pebble mine

The Trump administration is facing backlash after releasing a final environmental impact statement concluding that a massive copper, gold and molybdenum project in Alaska would not likely lead to environmental harm, reversing the Obama administration's determination that the project would pose a significant risk to the region's salmon fishery.

Despite pushback from a broad group of stakeholders, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers concluded that the controversial Pebble surface mine in Southwest Alaska would not have a measurable impact on fish in the region, clearing the way for final approval of the project. The company behind the project, Vancouver, British Columbia-based mineral exploration and development company Northern Dynasty Minerals Ltd., cheered the release of the environmental impact statement, calling the document "clear validation that Pebble can be developed in an environmentally sound and socially responsible way."

The Pebble project "has the potential to become one of the most significant metals producers in the United States, and a major source of jobs, investment, economic activity and government revenues in Alaska," Northern Dynasty President and CEO Ron Thiessen said in a July 24 statement.

The environmental impact statement concluded that "impacts to fish and wildlife would not be expected to impact harvest levels," and there would be no measurable impact on commercial fishing activities. The statement also concluded that there would not be any direct and indirect impacts of water discharged from the mine into surface waters and highlighted the socioeconomic benefits of the mine.

"The project could reduce or eliminate the current local population decline because of the increase in employment opportunities and indirect effects on education and infrastructure; it could also lead some prior residents to return to communities," the impact statement said.

Environmental groups criticized the move, saying the proposed mine threatens a salmon fishery that supports 14,000 jobs annually and generates $1.5 billion in annual economic output. Earthworks pointed to the final environmental impact statement's conclusion that the project would harm more than 191 miles of streams and 4,641 acres of wetlands under phase 1, with 185 miles of rivers and streams and 3,841 acres of wetlands facing permanent damage.

"The Bristol Bay wild salmon fishery is a phenomenal natural resource that will continue to power the economy and feed the world as long as the clean water and intact habitat of the watershed is protected from large-scale mining," Earthworks Northwest Program Director Bonnie Gestring said. "The Pebble mine must be denied to protect our nation's greatest wild salmon fishery and all those who depend on it."

Northern Dynasty aims to extract about 70 million tons of mineralized material annually from the mine. Pebble is expected to yield about 613,000 tons of copper-gold concentrate each year and 15,000 tons of molybdenum concentrate per year, on average.

Dennis McLerran, the former regional administrator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Pacific Northwest region, said in an emailed statement that the administration's conclusion was counter to the input the EPA received from the "world's best fisheries scientists."

"The Corps of Engineers evaluates a small, first phase development of the Pebble claims. Northern Dynasty Minerals' own documents establish the intention to mine and disrupt a much larger area of Bristol Bay," McLerran said. "Once a first phase mine is developed with access roads and a power plant, it is quite likely that a much larger mining district will eventually result, which would be devastating to salmon resources in the central part of the Bristol Bay Watershed."

Development of the open pit mine includes plans to build a 270-MW power generating plant fueled by a natural gas pipeline across the Cook Inlet.

The Army Corps of Engineers is required to issue a formal decision on the proposed mine 30 days after making the impact statement available. The Pebble project will still require state permits, a process Northern Dynasty projects will take two to three years. The company is now seeking a major mining company or consortium of companies to become a partner in the Pebble project.

A U.S. federal district court judge had dismissed a lawsuit challenging the EPA's decision to withdraw an Obama-era ruling that preemptively vetoed the project.