When someday the story of the Pebble Mine is told, 2014 may be best remembered as the year when all that remained of the once formidable Pebble Partnership was a bunch of lawyers for hire. By the end of 2014, all of the mining giants and their funding - Mitsubishi, Anglo American, and Rio Tinto - were gone, leaving only Northern Dynasty Minerals to keep the reckless vision of the Pebble Mine alive. The Partnership's new CEO is a lawyer from the Washington, D.C. law firm of Steptoe and Johnson, and mining activities have ground to a halt.
By the end of 2014, Pebble's public face had become lawsuits and lobbying against EPA, targeting its authority to do what Alaskans had petitioned it to do - i.e., to protect Alaska's wild salmon fishery. Three lawsuits had been filed against the agency, and legislation to constrain the agency's review of the Pebble project had been introduced in both houses of Congress.
Once again, permit applications - promised by Pebble for years - were never filed.
Some of the highlights of 2014:
- In January, after a four-year public process, EPA issued its final Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment - the product of comprehensive scientific study, multiple peer reviews, and extensive public participation - and the agency confirmed the opponents' worst fears about the devastation the project would cause. Citing EPA's findings, Alaska Senator Mark Begich promptly announced his opposition to the Pebble Mine - "wrong mine, wrong place."
- In February, EPA formally initiated the Clean Water Act process to prohibit or restrict the Pebble Mine - called "404(c)" -- requested in 2010 by Alaskan tribes and, in the years since, supported overwhelmingly by the public in repeated public comment periods.
- In April, instead of taking over the Pebble Mine as Northern Dynasty Minerals had hoped, mining giant Rio Tinto announced that it was ending its participation in the project. It donated its 19 percent interest in the project - shares in Northern Dynasty -- to two Alaskan charities, which promptly began selling the shares. The following week, NRDC and a coalition of Alaskan leaders went to London to convey thanks and congratulations personally to Rio Tinto's board and CEO at the annual general meeting.
Nunamta Aulukestai's Kim Williams, Rio CEO Sam Walsh, NRDC's Joel Reynolds, Rio Chair Jan de Plessis, Rio Director of Copper Jean-Sebastien Jacques, Yupik Elder Bobby Andrew
- In May, Pebble filed the first of its three lawsuits against EPA, alleging violations of the Clean Water Act and various state statutes. Four months later, the lawsuit was dismissed.
- In July, EPA formally announced for public comment specific restrictions on development of the Pebble Mine, foreclosing the massive project proposed by the Pebble Partnership but leaving the door open for Pebble to file a permit application for a vastly smaller project - if it chooses to do so.
- In August, within three days of each other, two mine containment dams failed - belying assurances that modern mining technology would prevent it. First, on August 4 in British Columbia, at Imperial Metal's Mount Polley mine, a dam designed by the same company hired to design the massive containment dams at Pebble suffered a total failure, releasing billions of gallons of contaminated mining waste into the salmon-rich Frazier River system. Three days later, 1200 miles south at the Buena Vista mine in Sonora, Mexico, 10 million gallons of mining acid spilled into the Bacanuchi River, shutting down drinking water supplies, closing schools, and affecting an estimated 800,000 people.
- In early September, a group of Republican members of Congress from the lower 48 states - led by Senator David Vitter of Louisiana and Rep. Darrel Issa of San Diego County - initiated an investigation of NRDC, charging "collusion" with EPA and specifically alleging, among other things, that "NRDC significantly shaped EPA's decision to severely limit the operation of the proposed Pebble Mine in Bristol Bay, Alaska under section 404(c) of the Clean Water Act." Although a transparent attack on the environmental advocacy that NRDC was created to do, NRDC has responded, and is continuing to respond, to the Members' requests for documents.
- Also in early September, Pebble filed a second lawsuit against EPA, alleging violations of the Federal Advisory Committee Act. The litigation is still pending.
- By the close of the public comment period on September 19, over 625,000 public comments were received by EPA in support of its proposed restrictions on the Pebble Mine. Less than 5,000 comments opposed.
- In late September, Pebble's first lawsuit was dismissed as premature, and Pebble filed an appeal.
- In October, Pebble filed a third lawsuit against EPA, alleging violations of the Freedom of Information Act. The litigation is still pending.
- In November, a state-wide initiative in Alaska called "Bristol Bay Forever" - to protect the Bristol Bay watershed from large-scale mining harmful to Alaska's wild salmon - passed overwhelmingly with 65 percent of the vote. Although not a total prohibition against the Pebble Mine or any other potential mine -- if the Alaska legislature finds that a proposed mine poses no risk of harm to salmon -- the initiative was widely viewed as a referendum on the Pebble project, and the lopsided outcome reflects broad opposition to the project across the state.
- In late November, a federal court in Alaska issued a temporary injunction barring EPA from proceeding with its 404(c) process pending litigation of an alleged violation of the Federal Advisory Committee Act in connection with the Pebble project.
- In December, calling it "one of America's greatest natural resources, and a massive economic engine not only for Alaska but for America," President Obama put Bristol Bay off -limits permanently to oil and gas drilling. This decision is a high level recognition of the very natural resource values that would be put at risk by the Pebble Mine. As the Los Angeles Times observed in an editorial, "there is not much point in protecting the bay without protecting the rivers that feed it. That's why state and federal regulators should say no to the Pebble Mine."
- On December 31, Northern Dynasty Minerals' shares closed at 38 cents a share, down from over $21.00 per share in 2011.
Locally and nationally, the opposition to the Pebble Mine has continued unabated -- and intensified -- in 2014. But no one should expect the project to go quietly into the night as long as Pebble can pay its lawyers to subvert the will of the people of Alaska.
Stay the course. Take action - again -- to stop the Pebble Mine.
Photo Cred: Robert Glenn Ketchum