A new transportation route for the proposed Pebble Mine faces backlash from land owners

Map of the Bristol Bay region. The Pebble deposit location is indicated by the red box. (Photo courtesy U.S. EPA)

The Army Corps of Engineers plans to release its final environmental review for the proposed Pebble Mine later this summer. Last month, the Corps changed which transportation corridor it recommends. The route cuts through land owned by several Bristol Bay entities that refuse to grant Pebble access to their properties.

Known as the “northern route,” the transportation corridor is an 82-mile road along Lake Iliamna. Trucks would use it to take copper and gold from the mine site in the north and drive along the lake to Diamond Point Port, where it would then be shipped off. A pipeline transporting minerals would run parallel with the road.

The Army Corps of Engineers announced last month that the northern route was its preferred alternative for the final environmental review. Pebble’s southern route was previously the preferred alternative. It would have used a ferry system to carry minerals across Lake Iliamna.

When Senator Lisa Murkowski heard the news, she called the change “unsettling.”

Credit Pebble Limited Partnership, Pebble Project EIS

“And that’s probably a mild word for many that we’ve heard from, because it was a new route in the sense that it was a change after completion of the EIS,” Murkowski said. “I know it may sound old, but I mean it: if this project can’t meet the high bar that it needs to meet, it should not be allowed to move forward”

The northern route was identified by the Environmental Protection Agency as the least environmentally damaging practicable alternative, also known as LEDPA. But it would still permanently impact the area’s wetlands. According to the EPA, the route could destroy 2,292 acres of wetlands and 105 miles of streams. It will also indirectly impact to another 1,647 acres of wetlands and 80 miles of streams used for “dust deposition, dewatering and aquatic habitats.

Pebble spokesperson Mike Heatwole says the partnership will have to overhaul its plans for compensatory mitigation, or offsetting the mine’s impacts to wetlands. Pebble originally proposed to make up for environmental damage by providing water and sewer upgrades, around Kokhanok, Newhalen and Nondalton. 

“One of the other process thesis that we work through here will end up being the compensatory mitigation plan for the wetlands impact,” Heatwole said. “Obviously that changes a little bit going from the southern route to the northern route and we’ll continue to work on it.”

If the mine is permitted, Pebble has to complete any compensatory mitigation before construction of the mine can begin. But there’s another barrier Pebble will need to consider.

“We are the subsurface landowner under all of the transportation alternatives we have surface acreage over a couple of allotments that we have purchased that are specifically along the northern route and yes we’ve objected all along, since day one, to the use of either our surface or subsurface resources for the construction of the transportation corridor of this project.’

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That’s Dan Cheyette, vice president of lands and resources for the Bristol Bay Native Corporation. BBNC has condemned the alternative transportation route, Cheyette said they will not be granting Pebble any right of way access to the land.

“PLP apparently doesn’t believe they need our permission and those issues will have to be addressed or litigated down the line,” he said.

The route also cuts through land owned by Iliamna Native Limited, Pedro Bay Corporation and Igiugig Village Council. Igiugig’s council is a majority owner of Iliaska Enviromental LLC, a subsidiary that oversees Diamond Point Rock Quarry.

It also plans to deny use of the property. In a letter they say:

“PLP’s plan for Diamond Point presented in the EIS does not fit with our plans for Diamond Point, and should not be considered an acceptable alternative.”

Iliamna Natives Limited is one of the entities that supports construction of the mine and the new route. Lisa Reimers is the CEO of Iliamna Development Corporation and is an INL board member.

“We want roads,” Reimers said. “That to us is really important to the growth of Iliamna is to build roads.”

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Pebble’s vice president of permitting, James Fueg, acknowledged in a memo that “all access corridors are subject to PLP’s ability to negotiate a mutually acceptable access agreement with the associated landowners.” Heatwole, the Pebble spokesperson, says that’s the partnership’s main focus at this time.

“We intend to work with each of the landowners on the northern corridor and believe we can gain that access,” he said.

The Army Corps of Engineers is on schedule to submit the final EIS this summer with the northern route in mind. Another recent development from PLP is introducing a revenue sharing incentive for residents in Bristol Bay.

Pebble expects to pay at least $3 million a year in dividends that would be distributed to those who register for the program. If the mine is permitted, PLP will payout 3% of its net annual profits each year. 

Contact the author at tyler@kdlg.org or 907-842-2200