The tangled history of a proposed major gold mine on Alaska’s Bristol Bay took another unexpected turn Monday, as the Trump administration defied expectations that it was ready to kill the planned Pebble Mine and instead gave the project’s backers until after November’s elections a chance to keep the project alive.
The project has scrambled the usual green debate alliances, with figures such as Donald Trump Jr. and Vice President Pence’s ex-chief of staff lobbying the president to kill the project.
In a letter dated Aug. 20 but not posted until Monday, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers instructed the Pebble Limited Partnership to offer an “environmental mitigation” plan within 90 day to restore the watershed as well as the wetlands, open waters and streams from the project’s “unavoidable adverse impacts.”
The Corps cleared the gold-copper-molybdenum mine last month in its Final Environmental Impact Statement, but recent anti-Pebble tweets from the younger Mr. Trump and former Mike Pence chief-of-staff Nick Ayers had fueled multiple media reports over the weekend that the White House would nix project.
The partnership, which plans to run a television ad during the Republican National Convention urging President Trump to approve the mine, said the mitigation requirement was nothing out of the ordinary.
“The letter we received today is a normal letter in the permitting process and we are well into an effort to present a mitigation plan to the [Corps of Engineers] that complies with the requirements of their letter,” said Pebble CEO Tom Collier in a statement. “A clear reading of the letter shows it is entirely unrelated to recent tweets about Pebble and one-sided news shows.”
He may have been referring to Fox’s “Tucker Carlson Tonight,” which devoted a segment during his Aug. 15 show called “The Case Against Alaska’s Pebble Mine.”
“The White House had nothing to do with the letter, nor is it the show-stopper described by several in the news media over the weekend,” said Mr. Collier.
Meanwhile, the Audubon Society sued the Trump administration on Monday to stop oil-and-gas development in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, arguing that the Interior Department failed to comply with state and federal environmental rules.
Foes of the Pebble Mine, led by environmental groups, have warned of damage to the world’s largest sockeye salmon fishery, while supporters have argued that the project’s 5.3 square-mile facility footprint represents a tiny portion of the 40,000-square-mile watershed.
Mr. Collier even disputed press reports that Monday’s revelations meant Pebble Mine was being put on hold.
“The letter does not ask for a delay or pause in the permitting process. In fact, it clearly states that the USACE is continuing its work toward a Record of Decision for the project,” he said. “This is the next step in what has been a comprehensive, exhaustive 21/2-year review of the project. Nothing in the letter is a surprise to us or them.”
The Obama administration blocked the mine in 2017, but the Trump Environmental Protection Agency lifted the hold in July 2019, allowing the regulatory process to continue.
National Wildlife Federation president Collin O’Mara said Monday that the “Pebble Mine has always been the wrong mine in the wrong place,” and said the Corps letter will “help ensure we don’t rush headlong into catastrophe.”
“Bristol Bay is a national treasure and there is simply no way to engineer a permanent solution that prevents billions of gallons of toxic tailings from leaching or mitigates the massive wetland losses,” said Mr. O’Mara in a statement.