The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) of 1969 was a response to a growing awareness of environmental degradation in the U.S. in the form of polluted waterways, diminished air quality in cities, acid rain from coal-fired power plants, and more. NEPA provided a mechanism through which a thorough assessment of the environmental consequences of various actions and developments on lands, air, and water quality in the U.S. The Act was not designed to stop development but to identify the likely environmental consequences and come up with alternative approaches to minimize the consequences. This mechanism includes measures to protect water and air quality, as well as environmental impact statements (EIS), which include public review and input as part of the process.
In Alaska, environmental assessments and EISs have been developed for numerous development projects such as roads, bridges, harbors, dams, oil wells, pipelines, hard rock mines and others. Most hard rock metal mines in Alaska have required an EIS, whether they are on federal, state or private lands. Red Dog Mine in Northwest Alaska, for example, was located entirely on NANA Native corporation land. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was the lead federal agency for the EIS that was completed in 1984, with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACOE) and the Department of Interior being cooperating agencies. The EIS proceeded through various stages, including subject matter expert review of all aspects of the mine proposal with recommendations for improvement. The public then had an opportunity to review the draft EIS and provide comments. The final EIS, considering comments and recommendations, laid out the conditions of development for the mine. It took time, but anybody who was interested could know all the details.
Following that was Kensington in Southeast Alaska in 1992, which was located on U.S. Forest Service (USFS) and some private land, with the USFS as the lead federal agency.
Then it was Pogo in 2003, which was located on state lands in the Interior with the EPA as the lead federal agency for the EIS.
Then Greens Creek in Southeast Alaska, which is on USFS land with the USFS as the lead federal agency for the EIS.
Then it was Donlin in Southwest Alaska, which is on Native corporation land. The EIS process was led jointly by the Army Corps of Engineers and Bureau of Land Management and was finalized in 2018.
The EIS for the Pebble Project, located on state lands in SW Alaska, was finalized in 2020. The USACOE was the lead Federal agency for the EIS. That EIS resulted in a rejection decision because there was no practical way to minimize the risk of environmental damage to the fish habitats that surround the mine site.
The Fort Knox Mine, which is located on state and private land just north of Fairbanks, is an anomaly among this group in that it is the only one that has not gone through an EIS process. The proponent bypassed the EIS process by contracting consulting firms to prepare an environmental assessment (EA). The EA included most of the components of an EIS, although there were no independent subject matter experts reviewing the plan. The entire EA was available for public review and included all comments and proponent responses in Appendix B. They requested and received a Section 404 permit from the Army Corps, and the State provided all other reviews and permitting they required. The EA was finalized in August 1993.
True North and GIL mines, 12 and 10 miles from Fort Knox, respectively, have not gone through an EIS or an EA process. They appear to be wrapped within the Fort Knox permitting umbrella despite being or planning to be significant open-pit, hard-rock mines. Any state documents associated with them are found within Fort Knox documents on the Department of Natural Resources Large Mines website, although there are few details available to the public of their operations, geochemistry or the expected long-term mitigation needs.
Similarly, the Manh Choh mine in Tetlin, 250 miles away, appears to be following this same process. There has been no EIS or EA. The Army Corps of Engineers approved a Section 404 wetlands permit for the mine site area after a public notice that did not include any of the supporting documents required to make an informed comment. They declined to consider the entire operation of the mine, ore haul, processing and long-term mitigation needs. The state then asked for public comment on waste management and reclamation permits at the mine site and made five supporting documents prepared by consulting firms available to the public on their website. Again, no consideration of the trucking route, fugitive dust, the processing facility or long-term mitigation requirements, as were considered for all other large hard-rock mines in Alaska.
The public interest components of the NEPA legislation and the EIS process are being lost with this approach to hard-rock mine permitting. It may be that the state permitting staff are diligent with their considerations of the laws and all the details of these projects. The public, however, is being sidelined. The public will be impacted by the ore haul, the fugitive dust that will be distributed along the roads, and the long-term care that will be required when the Fort Knox mine, which will drain to the Chena River, is eventually finished. Yet, little information on these issues is being shared. While this may be an efficient process for the mining companies, it is a poor process for the interested public.
Randy Brown is a fish biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Fairbanks. The views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and do not reflect those of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. This article was originally published in the Anchorage Daily News on May 29, 2023.