Meghan Barker presents information about Pebble Mine during a remote series on Wednesday, March 10, 2021. (Screenshot)

Meghan Barker presents information about Pebble Mine during a remote series on Wednesday, March 10, 2021. (Screenshot)

Conservation group explores future of Pebble Mine in virtual discussion

The group is seeking long-term protections for the region.

In their second installment of a series called “Subservice,” conservation group Trout Unlimited Alaska discussed on Wednesday the future of the Pebble Mine, a project to build a mine near the headwaters of Bristol Bay.

Trout Unlimited Alaska organizer Meghan Barker, who moderated the virtual lunch-and-learn conversation, said that although opponents of the Pebble Mine celebrated the denial of the project’s federal permit by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the fate of the mine has not been sealed yet.

The Army Corps currently is reviewing an administrative appeal filed in January by the Pebble Limited Partnership that could reverse its decision denying the permit, or uphold its denial, which would become final.

The Army Corps decided in February that Pebble’s appeal could be considered, but rejected an administrative appeal filed by the State of Alaska on grounds that the state is not an “affected party.”

In the case where the corps upholds their denial, the only way the Pebble Mine could still happen is if someone sues the corps on behalf of the project, Barker said.

Even if the corps decides to uphold their initial decision, Barker said, the appeal process indicates that a lack of strong protections for Bristol Bay at the federal level leave the region vulnerable.

“While we are working to defend the permit decision, we also know that despite the song-and-dance that we have to do with Pebble time and time again, it doesn’t actually stop until we have levels of permanent protection in place for the region,” Barker said. “We don’t want to be having this appeal fight in five years, in 10 years, in 20 years. We want to make sure that people and fish of Bristol Bay can look forward to the future and don’t have to worry about the storm cloud of Pebble coming in and hovering over them.”

Moving forward, Barker said that Trout Unlimited Alaska is being very specific about what permanent protections they want, which they said have to be durable and long-term in order to be effective.

The first protection they are seeking is for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to use section 404(c) of the Clean Water Act, which prohibits or denies the discharge of mining waste into U.S. waters when it may negatively impact fish and wildlife habitats, among other things.

The second option Barker said they could pursue is congressional protections for Bristol Bay. Both U.S. Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan have previously stated their opposition to Pebble Mine, Barker said, which sets a stage for potential bipartisan action.

The only way to truly kill the Pebble Mine, Barker said, is to retire mining leases in Bristol Bay, which could only happen on the state level.

“When we talk about what is our most ideal situation of permanent protection, retiring mineral leases is ultimately going to be what gets us to never have to think about Pebble again,” Barker said. “So that’s definitely something that we are probably not going to be able to tackle in 2021, but it’s something that we’re absolutely looking forward to when we think about the long-term future of the region.”

“Subservice” series is free to viewers and can be viewed on Trout Unlimited Alaska’s Facebook page. Other topics Trout Unlimited Alaska plans to address include Tongass National Forest, Anadromous Waters Catalog and Chinook on the Kenai.

Reach reporter Ashlyn O’Hara at ashlyn.ohara@peninsulaclarion.com.

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