Trump administration says massive Alaska gold mine won’t cause major environmental harm, reversing Obama

“According to the Corps, the operations would permanently destroy more than 2,200 acres of wetlands and waters, and 105 miles of streams.” 

Washington Post: Trump administration says massive Alaska gold mine won’t cause major environmental harm, reversing Obama

The Pebble Mine, which would be the largest in North America, was halted by the Obama administration out of concern it would irreversibly damage the famous sockeye salmon fishery.

Dillingham, Alaska, a fishing community of 2,300, is the largest town and hub of the Bristol Bay region, which is at the center of a battle over a proposed gold and copper mine.
Dillingham, Alaska, a fishing community of 2,300, is the largest town and hub of the Bristol Bay region, which is at the center of a battle over a proposed gold and copper mine. (Bill Roth/Anchorage Daily News/Tribune News Service/Getty Images)
July 24, 2020 at 12:55 p.m. PDT

Trump officials concluded Friday that a proposed gold and copper mine in Alaska — which would be the largest in North America — would not pose serious environmental risks, a sharp reversal from a finding by the Obama administration that it would permanently harm the region’s prized sockeye salmon.

The official about-face regarding the bitterly contested project epitomizes the whiplash that has come to define environmental policy under President Trump, who has methodically dismantled many of his predecessor’s actions on climate change, conservation and pollution.

final environmental analysis issued Friday by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers found that Pebble Mine — which targets a deposit of gold, copper and other minerals worth up to $500 billion — “would not be expected to have a measurable effect on fish numbers” in the Bristol Bay watershed, which supports the world’s largest sockeye salmon fishery.

The Obama administration, which looked at multiple project scenarios, concluded in 2014 that a major mine in the area could cause irreparable harm.

The bitter fight over Pebble Mine has raged for nearly two decades. Halted by the last administration, the project has been fast-tracked under Trump and is poised to get final federal approval by the end of the year. But a coalition of local residents and national environmental groups will challenge the permit in court, and the next administration could block it once again if Democrats win the White House in the fall.

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It is just one of several huge infrastructure proposals with a fate that depends on this year’s presidential election. Trump has sought to expedite two major oil and gas pipelines that the Obama administration had blocked: Keystone XL and Dakota Access. Both have encountered legal setbacks in recent months, and presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden has already pledged to stop Keystone if elected on the grounds that it would accelerate climate change. Another major Trump administration initiative in Alaska — lifting logging restrictions in Tongass National Forest, the world’s largest temperate rainforest — might also be reversed if the president fails to win a second term.

Marcella Burke, who served as one of the top lawyers at the Environmental Protection Agency and Interior Department under Trump and is now a partner at King & Spalding, said the private sector has come to expect this sort of regulatory seesaw. Even as Trump has uprooted so many of Barack Obama’s energy and environmental policies, businesses are aware that next year could bring a reversal of the reversals.

“In between administrations, you’re going to get different results,” she said. “That’s just reality, especially in places like Alaska.”

If constructed, the proposed 20-year mining operation will transform an area that is now dominated by a $1.4 billion commercial, recreational and subsistence salmon fishery. The Canadian company behind the project is planning a mine that will span more than 13 miles and require the construction of a 270-megawatt power plant, natural gas pipeline, 82-mile double-lane road, elaborate storage facilities and the dredging of a port at Iliamna Bay. Trucks would make more than a dozen round trips a day to transport the minerals, which would be fed through the processing plant at a rate of 180,000 tons per day.

Pebble Partnership CEO Tom Collier points to the open pit on a model as he speaks to reporters in 2019.
Pebble Partnership CEO Tom Collier points to the open pit on a model as he speaks to reporters in 2019. (Alex Milan Tracy/Sipa USA via AP)

According to the Corps, the operations would permanently destroy more than 2,200 acres of wetlands and waters, and 105 miles of streams. The EPA indicated earlier this year that it would not block the project at this point.