The Trump administration on Wednesday denied a permit for a controversial gold and copper mine near the headwaters of the world’s largest sockeye salmon fishery in south-west Alaska.
The army corps of engineers said in a statement that the permit application to build the Pebble Mine was denied under both the Clean Water Act and the Rivers and Harbors Act.
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The corps said the discharge plan from the Pebble Limited Partnership, the mine’s backers, did not comply with Clean Water Act guidelines.
The agency “concluded that the proposed project is contrary to the public interest”, according to the statement from Col Damon Delarosa, commander of the corps’ Alaska district.
The Pebble partnership CEO, John Shively, said he was dismayed, especially after the corps had indicated in an environmental impact statement in July that the mine and fishery could coexist.
“One of the real tragedies of this decision is the loss of economic opportunities for people living in the area,“ Shively said in a statement.
The environmental review “clearly describes those benefits, and now a politically driven decision has taken away the hope that many had for a better life. This is also a lost opportunity for the state’s future economy.”
But environmental and indigenous rights activists saw the decision as good news.
Adam Kolton, executive director of the Alaska Wilderness League advocacy group, said the decision would be met with a “sigh of relief” from tribal people, fishers and local communities.
“The credit for this victory belongs not to any politician but to Alaskans and Bristol Bay’s indigenous peoples, as well as to hunters, anglers and wildlife enthusiasts from all across the country who spoke out in opposition to this dangerous and ill-conceived project,” Kolton said.
He added: “We can be thankful that their voices were heard, that science counted and that people prevailed over short-term profiteering.”
Marc Fink, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, said the mine would have caused “irreparable damage” to the Bristol Bay area.
“The corps’ decision is a huge victory for wild salmon, the Iliamna lake seal and other imperiled wildlife that call this spectacular place home,” he said.
The corps of engineers in July released an environmental review that the mine developer saw as laying the groundwork for key federal approvals.
The review said that under normal operations, Pebble Mine, proposed for south-west Alaska’s Bristol Bay region, “would not be expected to have a measurable effect on fish numbers and result in long-term changes to the health of the commercial fisheries in Bristol Bay”.
However, in August, the corps said it had determined that discharges at the mine site would cause “unavoidable adverse impacts to aquatic resources” and laid out required efforts to reduce those effects. That prompted Alaska’s Republican US senators to oppose the project.
Senator Dan Sullivan, who won re-election in November, went so far as to declare the project “dead”.
Canada-based Northern Dynasty Minerals Ltd, which owns the Pebble Limited Partnership, said it had submitted a mitigation plan on 16 November.
If the project were to have secured approval from the corps, there was still no guarantee it would have been built. It would have needed state approval. President-elect Joe Biden has expressed opposition to the project.
Last year, the US Environmental Protection Agency withdrew restrictions on development that were proposed – but never finalized – under the Obama administration and said it planned to work with the corps to address concerns.
Critics of the project saw Pebble as getting a lifeline under the Trump administration.
However, Trump’s eldest son, Donald Trump Jr, was among those who voiced opposition earlier this year. The president said in August he would “listen to both sides” on the issue.
The Pebble partnership had praised the corps’ environmental review, while critics of the project said it lacked scientific rigor.