As Pebble scoping closes, environmental groups take issue with changes to the project

Jun 29, 2018

Pebble Limited Partnership's updated project plan.
Credit U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will close the commenting period of its scoping process for the Pebble Mine Project Friday evening. As the last of the comments trickle in, some critics of the mine are taking issue with some changes that were made during the scoping period.

The comments the Army Corps of Engineers collected from the public will set the stage for what it will study as it compiles the Environmental Impact Statement.

Back in May, Pebble shifted some of its plans for the project, including design changes to the 60-mile natural gas line it plans lay across Cook Inlet. It also changed its plan to ship mineral concentrate out of its proposed port facility in the southwest corner of Cook Inlet.

Pebble spokesperson Mike Heatwole said the changes at the port reduce the amount of dredging that would have been required to bring larger barges up to a dock on Amakdedori Beach.  

“We looked at it and from an environmental and impact perspective, looked at lightering and thought that that made more sense and included that in our memo to the Corps of Engineers,” Heatwole explained.

Pebble plans to ship roughly 675 million tons of copper, gold and molybdenum concentrate on 27 barges every year.  

But instead of loading the semi-processed minerals directly onto those barges from the dock, they’ll be moored off shore, and smaller vessels will ferry or lighter the concentrate from the dock to the shipping barges in sealed containers.

“That's strictly for the the mineral concentrate, to get that off to a smelter where it gets refined into the metal,” Heatwole said. “Supplies and fuel and other needs would would still come in via barge to the main port facility there.”

Pebble also plans to increase the size of its proposed natural gas pipeline, which would run from Anchor Point to Pebble’s port facility, across Iliamna lake and on to the mine site.

In a May memo to the Army Corps of Engineers, Pebble said the change to the pipeline is to supply a larger 270-megawatt power plant. Pebble said it needs the plant – which is larger than what it indicated in its original permit application – to process more material during the proposed 20-year lifespan of the mine.

Environmental groups on the Kenai Peninsula and elsewhere are taking issue with those changes. Bob Shavelson is the advocacy director for Cook Inletkeeper.

“First of all, it’s a moving target. So, in the middle of the comment period here, they changed their design,” Shavelson said. “We need them to come up with an idea and stick with it.”

The Army Corps of Engineers said projects such as Pebble can and do change during the scoping process, and stakeholders can submit additional comments on any of the changes up until the deadline.

Still, Shavelson and others are criticizing the changes to the port and say the facility as a whole is unfeasible because of the conditions in the area.  

“It’s clear when you get on the beach there it’s a high-energy beach. You’ve got massive logs that have not only been pushed over the berm, but a mile inland,” Shavelson added. “You must get a huge storm surge there. So, any thought that you’re going to be able to hold a barge on that beach or bring some large ore carrier in close I think is ludicrous.”

Homer-based environmental group SalmonState is also taking issue with the plans to ferry concentrate out to barges, but Executive Director Tim Bristol said the group is also concerned about the larger gas line and power plant Pebble is asking for.

Bristol argues those plans indicate that Pebble has plans to expand the project in the future.

“I think that they're trying to bifurcate or segment the EIS process so they can get approval, and then once in there, get bigger and bigger,” Bristol said.

Heatwole said currently, there are no plans for a second phase of the project. Heatwole does note Pebble may request an expansion down the line, but he said that too would go through the environmental review process.

The commenting period on Pebble’s current proposal will come to a close at 11:59 Friday, which will be followed by a scoping report. The public will have a chance to comment on the project again when the Army Corps releases the draft environmental impact statement in early 2019.