Governor calls for halt of Pebble mine review

JUNEAU, Alaska — Alaska Gov. Bill Walker has asked the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to suspend its environmental review of a proposed copper-and-gold mine near a major salmon fishery, saying he questions whether the project is ready to move forward.

Walker’s letter to the corps, also signed by Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott, said the group seeking to develop the mine, the Pebble Limited Partnership, has yet to show that it has proposed a “feasible and realistic project.”

Tom Collier, CEO of the Pebble partnership, called the request a stall tactic that he would expect from anti-development groups but not from the governor. Walker fails to make a compelling case for halting the current process, he said.

“It is this type of behavior that makes many in the global investment community reluctant to invest in Alaska,” Collier said in a statement.

The project, located in Alaska’s Bristol Bay region, has been the subject of heated debate for years. Bristol Bay produces about half of the world’s sockeye salmon.

The Pebble partnership in December applied for a permit with the corps.

The corps recently concluded a comment period that allowed people to share their views, cite any concerns and offer suggestions on the scope of the review. The Alaska Department of Natural Resources submitted comments Friday, which is also when Walker and Mallott submitted their letter.

State Natural Resources Commissioner Andy Mack said there needs to be a better understanding of the project’s economics before moving forward.

The Bristol Bay region is unique, he said.

“We don’t want to play any games. We just want to know what is being proposed, and what those impacts might be, what those benefits might be before we get into this process,” he said.

Critics have complained about the corps’ process; Chip Treinen, with Commercial Fishermen for Bristol Bay, said in a recent statement that the corps is fast-tracking Pebble’s permit application and worried the process was tilted in Pebble’s favor.

The corps had not yet responded to Walker’s request.

Mike Heatwole, a Pebble spokesman, said Pebble believes its project is technically, environmentally and economically feasible. Review processes like the corps’ will look at whether Pebble’s assumptions, particularly on technical and environmental issues, are correct, he said Monday.

Canada-based Northern Dynasty Minerals Ltd., which owns the Pebble partnership, has been looking for a partner since Anglo American PLC announced it was pulling out in 2013.

Canada-based First Quantum Minerals Ltd., courted as a potential investor, backed away from the project in May, though offered no public comment at the time as to why.

Heatwole said there has been “active interest” as Pebble seeks a new partner. “And when we have something to share I certainly look forward to doing that,” he said.

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In this June 2019 photo, people gather outside U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s office in Juneau, Alaska, to protest the proposed Pebble Mine. The Pebble Limited Partnership, which wants to build a copper and gold mine near the headwaters of a major U.S. salmon fishery in southwest Alaska, says it plans to offer residents in the region a dividend. (AP Photo/Becky Bohrer, File)
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