Hakai Magazine

Mount Iliamna, Alaska
The proposed Pebble Mine would have been built in the Koktuli River watershed, upstream of Bristol Bay, Alaska. Photo by Walter 64/Alamy Stock Photo

Examining Why the Pebble Mine Died

Regulators handed a rare rejection to the proposed Alaska copper and gold mine.

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by Ashley Braun

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In a final decision that surprised many, the US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) has denied a key federal permit to the Pebble Limited Partnership (PLP), bringing to an end the company’s 13-year-long bid to build the controversial Pebble Mine in southwest Alaska. The Corps deemed PLP’s final proposal “noncompliant” with the requirements of the Clean Water Act—one of the few times the agency has rejected a major resource extraction project in Alaska.

The Pebble Mine was slated for a largely undeveloped swath of wilderness near Bristol Bay, a watershed that supports one of the world’s most productive wild sockeye salmon populations. The rejection hinges on PLP’s final compensatory mitigation plan, which described how the company expected to make up for destroying wetlands with the construction of its copper and gold mine by temporarily preserving more than 45,000 hectares of undisturbed wetlands nearby.

In its rejection, USACE concluded that the mine and its supporting infrastructure, which would have involved building roads, a port, and a natural gas pipeline and power plant, are “contrary to the public interest.” That determination cited the project’s “probable” and “cumulative” impacts. For example, PLP’s proposal suggested that green-lighting the Pebble Mine could “foreseeably result in the development of additional new mines,” which would further damage the area’s wetlands.

In August, USACE outlined that PLP would need to offset the damage that the mine would cause to 1,300 hectares of wetlands and nearly 300 kilometers of streams, and that the compensation must occur in the same watershed where the mine was to be built. That challenge apparently proved too great for the company. USACE said PLP’s final plan failed to meet nine out of 13 basic requirements. As a result, the project’s “unavoidable adverse impacts” to wetlands, and the company’s inability to mitigate them, led USACE to deny the permit.

Questions remain about how the flurry of activity surrounding the mine proposal—outside of the fine details of the federal permitting and environmental review process—may have played into the decision. PLP executives’ undisclosed long-term plans for the mine, and their apparently cozy relationships with regulators—revealed in the secretly recorded Pebble Tapes—might have affected its prospects. As could have the criticism of President Trump’s son, avid fisherman and Pebble Mine opponent Donald Trump Jr. But many Alaska Natives, fishermen, conservation groups, and former federal regulators are celebrating the news of the mine’s rejection.

“It’s great news. It affirms the work that we did at EPA back in 2014,” says former US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Region 10 administrator Dennis McLerran, who signed off on restrictions that halted PLP’s efforts years earlier—a move the Trump administration reversed in 2019.

“We concluded that there were potentially significant adverse effects on the fishery in Bristol Bay after doing three years of twice-peer-reviewed science,” says McLerran. “And so now the Corps has reached the same conclusions based on the apparently secret mitigation plan.”

USACE’s rejection of PLP’s plan comes after a particularly tumultuous period of public and interagency consultation and deliberation. Despite repeated requests by Bristol Bay tribes to review and give feedback on PLP’s final mitigation plan, the public only saw the company’s final plan—which was completely different than previous versions—after USACE rejected the mine last week.

In the final version of its plan, PLP proposed to protect 10 times the area of the wetlands it destroyed, for a period of 99 years. The plan involved transferring state lands that are currently open to mining and other uses into a new Koktuli Conservation Area, a sprawling protected area in the Koktuli River watershed that would have been open to activities such as hunting and fishing. The Koktuli watershed, home to a unique and rare class of sockeye salmon, is where the bulk of the mine’s footprint would have been.

The Clean Water Act typically requires that mitigation efforts create new wetlands or restore degraded ones, but sometimes allows preserving wetlands when they are threatened by degradation or development. PLP says in its plan that, given the Koktuli watershed’s “largely undisturbed nature,” preservation was its only option for meeting USACE’s standards. The company then revealed that its own active mining claims constitute roughly a third of the potential conservation area.

In its decision, USACE cited a range of shortcomings with this plan, from inadequate information about the mitigation measures, to a missing maintenance plan, to the lack of mitigation offered to make up for building the port. In particular, USACE noted that the plan did not justify using preservation, which must be permanent and used together with wetland restoration.

“What you would have to do is actually improve on nature if you were to try to mitigate for the impacts within the watershed,” McLerran says. “To think that you could come up with compensatory mitigation in a pristine watershed is a bit arrogant.”

PLP CEO John Shively said in a statement that the company is examining its options. “We are obviously dismayed,” he said. “It is very disconcerting to see political influence in this process at the 11th hour.” He added: “For now, we will focus on sorting out next steps for the project including an appeal of the decision by the USACE.”

Brian Litmans, legal director for Trustees for Alaska, a nonprofit environmental law firm, is doubtful the company will succeed. “I think this is way beyond issues with Pebble dotting its i’s and crossing its t’s.”

McLerran thinks that should PLP pursue litigation, USACE’s decision would ultimately hold up in court. But he emphasizes that the Bristol Bay region and its salmon are not yet safe from mining. The next step, he says, is to find permanent protections. “I think it’s a great day, but people need to remain vigilant.”