JUNEAU — The developer of a proposed copper and gold mine near the headwaters of a major U.S. salmon fishery in southwest Alaska is expressing confidence that it's on track to win key federal approvals as part of a process critics say so far has been rushed and is inadequate.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on Friday plans to publicly release its final environmental review on the Pebble Mine project. A permitting decision is expected later this year.
Should the mine advance, it would need state approvals. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which under the Obama administration proposed restricting development of the project, could invoke that so-called veto process again if it deemed that necessary.
Pebble opponents, who believe the project got a lifeline under the Trump administration, also expect litigation if a permit is approved and say a change in administration could influence the project's trajectory.
If Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden wins in November, "we will find ourselves in a very different position relative to the Pebble Mine than we do today," said Joel Reynolds, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council. Biden was vice president during the Obama administration.
The Pebble Limited Partnership, which is owned by Canada-based Northern Dynasty Minerals Ltd. and working to advance the mine, saw as unfair the attempt to restrict development, which was never finalized and was dropped by EPA last year. The Pebble partnership argued the proposed restrictions were based on hypothetical mine plans and that the project should have a chance to go through the permitting process.
Tom Collier, Pebble partnership CEO, has expressed confidence in the outcome of the corps' process, saying Pebble believes the planned mine "will be judged to be a project of merit" and receive a favorable permitting decision as early as this summer.
Northern Dynasty, for years, has been looking for a partner, and Pebble sees securing approval from the corps as aiding that effort.
The corps, when it makes a decision, could issue a permit, approve a permit with conditions or issue a denial. Reynolds said a denial wouldn't prevent Pebble from filing another application, but he said a denial would be the "final nail in the coffin for any further investor interest."
The corps must wait at least 30 days from the publishing of the environmental review before entering a record of decision.
Pebble is proposing an open-pit mine and related infrastructure in Alaska's Bristol Bay region. The partnership, on its website, says the mine "will NOT harm the fish" and that the permitting process will validate that. It says the Pebble Mine would create jobs.
The EPA has said the Bristol Bay watershed supports the largest sockeye salmon fishery in the world. Salmon also is important to Alaska Native communities that rely on it for subsistence.
Pebble critics say the corps' review has been rushed and questioned the feasibility of a proposed route that crosses land that Pebble does not have permission to use. The corps previously said it had preliminarily determined a northern transportation route to be part of a "least environmentally damaging practicable alternative."
Collier said if the final environmental review is similar to a previously released draft, a permit denial would seem "quite implausible." He said work remains on mitigation plans that will be factored in as part of a final decision.
Three federal permits are expected to be part of the record of decision, said Mike Heatwole, a Pebble spokesperson.