The Army Corps of Engineers on Wednesday denied approval for the proposed Pebble Mine in Alaska and likely dealt a fatal blow to the long-controversial project.
In a statement, the Army Corps said it had “determined that the applicant’s plan for the discharge of wadding material did not comply with the guidelines of the Clean Water Act and concluded that the proposed project would be against the public interest”.
The decision, the agency said, “reflects a regulatory process that is fair, flexible and balanced.”
The decision to mine the proposed gold and copper mine in a remote part of Southwest Alaska is a victory for local groups, environmentalists, the state fishing industry and others who opposed the project.
Opponents said the large open pit, which would excavate and process tens of millions of tons of rock annually, would irreversibly damage the salmon hatcheries that form the basis of a sport fishing industry and large commercial fishery in nearby Bristol Bay. Salmon is also a staple food for the Native Alaska people in the region.
“The Corps’ denial of approval for the Pebble Mine is a victory for common sense,” said Chris Wood, executive director of the Trout Unlimited conservation group. “Bristol Bay is the wrong place for industrial mining.”
In a statement, John Shively, interim chief executive of property developer Pebble Limited Partnership, said the partnership would do so “Focus on clarifying the next steps for the project, including referring to the decision.”
Mr. Shively described the Corps’ action as “politically motivated,” particularly as given that earlier this year the corps had approved an environmental impact statement He said: “The project could successfully coexist with the fishery and would have brought significant economic benefits.
In July, the corps, which had authority to approve a permit under the Federal Clean Water Act, had approved an environmental impact assessort on the project, which said it would not permanently harm the fishing industry. However, a few weeks later the Corps stated that the company’s plan to offset environmental damage caused by the mine was inadequate and called for a new mitigation plan.
The new plan, which has not been made public but aims to designate land near the mine as permanently protected, was presented last week.
The battle for the fate of one of the largest copper and gold ore deposits in the world has been raging for more than a decade. The mining industry and many state officials have supported the project in terms of the revenue and other economic benefits it would bring. But some key Alaskan politicians, particularly Senator Lisa J. Murkowski, a Republican, was non-committal, saying the mine should only continue operating if there was evidence that it was environmentally safe.
The project was effectively sunk by the Obama administration only to be revived by the Trump White House. Under the Trump administration, the Environmental Protection Agency overturned an earlier decision and allowed the Corps to continue its environmental review.
However, Republican support has never been as bad as some other projects with potential environmental impact, particularly potential oil and gas wells in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, also in Alaska.
The Pebble project even sparked a rare dispute within the Trump family. In August Donald Trump Jr., an avid sportsman who fished in Bristol Bay, tweeted his opposition to the mine: “The headwaters of Bristol Bay and the surrounding fisheries are too unique and fragile to take a risk. #PebbleMine. ”
When asked about his son’s views and prospects for the project in the days that followed, President Trump said only that he was looking at “both sides” of the issue and that politics would not play a role in any decision. However, privately, administration officials said they expected the permit to be approved.
But in September the future of the billion dollar project appeared in doubt when secret records from company executives indicated that they were planning a much larger mine and one that would be operational for far longer than what had been proposed to the Corps.
The recordings were received from an environmental agency with two members who posed as potential investors for the project meeting via video with two project managers. The executives described how the mine can operate 160 years or more beyond the proposed 20 years and how its production can double after the first two decades.
In the aftermath of the recordings, one of the executives, Tom Collier, CEO of the Pebble Partnership, resigned.