Double Take! – Trump Administration Denies Controversial Pebble Mine Permit

By Hal Shepherd

The only way to ensure that the country’s greatest salmon fishery will be safe from any future attempts for similar development is by the return of the Obama administration EPA’s veto of the permit

Despite years of controversy including an environmentally and economically disastrous proposal, ignoring science, a rushed environmental impact analysis, opposition from the national political leadership on both sides of the isle and the worst lies and dirty tricks that the federal permitting process has to offer, the proposed Pebble Mine was still limping along after the 2020 election. In fact, in early November, the Pebble Partnership submitted a compensatory mitigation plan in response to an Army Corp of Engineer’s request that the Partnership illustrate how it would off-set the impacts of the mine on the Bristol Bay watershed.

Yet, even after revelations that the CEOs for the Pebble Partnership had lied about the intended scope of the Minewhich is proposed for the heart of the most productive salmon fishery in the world, basically had the Alaska political leadership in their hip pockets and that the anti-Mine rhetoric of such leadership would stop after the election, the Partnership was still determined to get the Mine permitted. Then, on the day before Thanksgiving, and in its first ever denial of a major extraction industry permit in Alaska, the usually pro-development Corp denied the Pebble Mine permit

According to the Anchorage Daily News, the agency concluded in its record of decision that under “Section 404 of the Clean Water Act and Section 10 of the Rivers and Harbors Act… the applicant's plan for the discharge of fill material does not comply with Clean Water Act guidelines and concluded that the proposed project is contrary to the public interest." This was out of character for the Corps which has a reputation for never having met a construction project it doesn’t like no matter what the environmental costs and it is common practice for the agency to rubberstamp an environmental mitigation plan like the one Pebble had submitted.

Tim Bristol from SalmonState provided one perspective of the surprising decision by stating “Sometimes a project is so bad, so indefensible, that the politics fall to the wayside and we get the right decision. That is what happened today.” Yet, even “bad or indefensible” projects have never stopped the Trump administration before and is at odds with it’s determination to open as much land for resources extraction in Alaska as possible, before leaving office on January 20. 

Opponents of the Mine had placed their hopes in Senators Dan Sullivan and Lisa Murkowski to move beyond anti-Pebble tweets and emojis and take more concrete measures to stop it. However, these hopes were dashed when Sullivan’s anti-mine rhetoric fizzled shortely after he was re-elected to another term and at about the same time, as chair of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that writes bills to fund federal resource agencies, Murkowski did not take the opportunity to block the Mine permitting process.   

So, if Trump’s denial of the permit can’t be based on the lack of science and a desire to rush through yet another extraction industry pet project, then it can only be explained by the fact that because many high-ranking republicans, including his son Trump Junior’s, opposition to the project. This may be an indication that although the Republic Party has become more autocratic under Trump once he is out of the Whitehouse, there may be some hope for compromise with some of the more moderate republicans such as Murkowski, in relation to environmental legislation.  

However, while Bristol Bay’s Indigenous peoples, as well as hunters, anglers and wildlife enthusiasts, salmon, brown bears, etc. celebrate the permit denial, this does not mean that the pebble project is dead entirely. The only way to ensure that the country’s greatest salmon fishery will be safe from any future attempts for similar development is by the return of the Obama administration EPA’s veto of the permit under section 404© of the Clean Water Act and that was axed by the Trump administration before it could take effect.

This is where president elect Joe Biden Administration comes in with a promise to eliminate Pebble for good. The best way for Biden to make good on this promise is to "take the next step and use the Clean Water Act to place permanent limits on mining in Bristol Bay to protect the salmon fishery and the communities that depend on it."