USACE takes public comment in Dillingham on Pebble Project, format generates frustration

Cate Gomez offers her comment on the Pebble Project, and the court reporter transcribes. (Photo by Avery Lill/ KDLG)

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers took public comment on the Pebble Mine plan in Dillingham on Tuesday.

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More than 80 people filtered through the middle school gym over the course of the evening to weigh in on potential resources that could be affected by the proposed mine and to suggest alternatives to components of the plan.

The main events were two stations in the back of the room. At a bank of computers, people could submit their comments online. At another table, sat a court reporter. People took turns speaking to her, and she recorded their comments. Some wrote their comments and gave them to those running the meeting.

At the other six public scoping meetings in Bristol Bay, the Army Corps provided a live microphone for people to deliver their comments publicly to the gathered audience. It did not provide that opportunity in Dillingham, Homer or Anchorage.

Many in Dillingham were frustrated not to have the opportunity to speak publicly. Curyung Tribal Council was among those who criticized the Army Corps for not providing a live microphone.

Gayla Hoseth, Curyung Second Chief, said the meeting’s format was inconsistent with Alaska Native people’s tradition of oral communication.

“The hearing format proposed by the USACE will result in fewer people speaking, which in turn means the scoping process will not be as well informed,” Hoseth said.

Curyung member chief, Kimberly Williams, traveled to several of the earlier scoping meetings in Bristol Bay. She said that she was disappointed to see a different format in her hometown than in the smaller villages.

“I’m really upset with the Army Corps of Engineers for what is happening in Dillingham. They are treating us very differently than the other communities. I’ve worked on this project for 14 years, and disseminating information is really important. I’m not telling people how to think. I’m asking people what their opinions are related to this project, and we want people in Dillingham and our tribal members to come out and testify and let them know what our concerns are,” Williams said.

The Army Corps said that it anticipated a high turnout for the meeting and that public testimony could have taken too long. It also cited a concern that testimony in a hub community could be front-loaded with perspectives overwhelmingly for or against the proposed mine.

Sheila Newman, regulatory division deputy chief with the Army Corps’ Alaska District, said that Dillingham and other larger venues could have the chance to offer public testimony after the Army Corps releases a draft of the Environmental Impact Statement.

“Public scoping meetings are something that we do to supplement scoping to make it easy for the public to provide input. Public hearings are a different endeavor that come later in the process. And that is truly a listening session where we as the federal agency would be walking into the room and just listening to public viewpoints on a project. There is an appropriate time for that in the Department of the Army permit review process and to correlate it with this review process it would be at the draft EIS stage,” Newman said.

The Corps of Engineers anticipates releasing a draft of the EIS in January 2019.

Scheduled scoping meetings on the project wrap up this week with the final meeting in Anchorage on Thursday.