Pebble is proposing to offset its impacts to wetlands through sewer repairs

Flying into Nondalton on April 8, 2019. (KDLG/Isabelle Ross)

Offsetting a project’s potential impacts to wetlands usually means restoring or protecting wetlands that serve the same purpose as those being altered or destroyed by development.

But Pebble is proposing to do something different. It wants to offset its potential impacts by, in part, repairing sewer systems in the three communities closest to the proposed mine site. Not everyone living in those communities, however, likes the proposal.

“Our position is, we do not want anything from Pebble. Nothing,” said George Alexie, president of the Nondalton Tribal Council, which opposes Pebble.

Pebble released its three-pronged mitigation proposal last month.

If the mine is built, it would permanently eliminate about three and a half miles of Bristol Bay’s wetlands, mainly at the headwaters of the Koktuli River, a tributary to the Nushagak River. But Bristol Bay’s other wetlands are almost untouched, so they wouldn’t need restoration. That’s where the sewer systems come in.

Pebble is proposing to pay for repairs to wastewater systems in Kokhanok, Newhalen and Nondalton.

A work camp at the proposed Pebble Mine site on April 8, 2019. (Isabelle Ross/KDLG)

It’s an unusual proposal, referred to as “out-of-kind mitigation.” Unlike most efforts, fixing the sewer systems wouldn’t directly impact wetlands, though it would improve water quality.

Alexie said the council sees Pebble’s mitigation plan as the company’s attempt to garner goodwill in the community. Pebble hasn’t worked with the tribe, Alexie said. He said he wasn’t sure whether they would talk to Pebble even if the company did reach out.

Pebble spokesperson Mike Heatwole called the mitigation approach a “win-win” because it addresses the fiscal and environmental impacts of the communities’ wastewater systems.

“We’re able to upgrade some water and sewer systems that may or may not receive the funds to do so, in an environment where there are more issues to work on than there are available opportunities to tackle them,” he said.

All three village sewer systems are over capacity. The cities own the sewer systems, and they agreed to have Pebble investigate them so the company could craft its mitigation plan. Pebble would also need their agreement before starting construction.

According to Pebble, the sewage lagoon in Kokhanok “is at risk of overflowing its berms,” and the system does not meet the EPA’s turbidity requirements. Two of Newhalen’s sewer plant septic tanks are at risk of collapsing, and raw sewage passes through them “substantially untreated,” Pebble says.

Nondalton’s system has been infiltrated by stormwater and debris. Alexie acknowledged that the system is old and in need of repairs. But he said that the risk Pebble poses to the community is greater.

“We have the most to lose on this whole Pebble stuff,” he said. “We’re opposed to it. It’s right in our backyard. It’ll hurt the hunt — everything. The water, the fish, the hunting, the animals.”

Both the tribal councils of Kokhanok and Newhalen are neutral on the proposed mine. Newhalen’s council declined to comment, and Kokhanok did not respond in time for this story.

As part of its mitigation plan, Pebble also proposed to rehabilitate salmon habitat near Dillingham and King Salmon, removing barriers by replacing culverts. At Amakdedori on Kamishak Bay, where Pebble is proposing to build a port, it proposed cleaning up marine debris along nearly eight miles of coast.

Out-of-kind mitigation in Alaska is not unprecedented. But it’s still unusual, and some critics say Pebble’s inclusion of sewer updates is proof that they’re reaching outside the box, and that the project’s impacts would be too big, in a wetlands area that’s too sensitive, to be offset through more conventional efforts.

Lake and Peninsula Borough Manager Nathan Hill worked with Pebble and the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium to identify the mitigation projects Pebble would focus on.

“We thought it was only fair that if we could find projects that benefited communities closer to the project, it made sense. And so we encouraged it,” Hill said.

Heatwole said that if the mine is permitted, the mitigation projects would have to be completed before construction begins. He didn’t have final cost estimates, but said that each project would be “in the magnitude of millions.” The Indian Health Service reports the projects would cost between $700,000 and $3.8 million.

Heatwole said Pebble would cover all the costs, and that the company’s ability to pay for those projects would factor into the company’s final authorization of the construction and operation of the mine.

Contact reporter Isabelle Ross at isabelle@kdlg.org or 907-842-2200.