Commentary: Now is not the time to rush a Pebble permit

By Verner Wilson

For The Cordova Times

Recently, the Pebble Partnership announced that despite the global coronavirus crisis, the project is moving forward with the backing by the U.S. Army Corps’ rushed timeline to grant a needed federal permit by “mid-2020.”

This is outrageous, as Bristol Bay residents are scrambling to respond to this global coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. Our largest town in the region recently urged the governor to shut down the $300 million fishery, our main economic staple, in a bid to save lives. Now is not a time for a rushed permit decision on Pebble when federal workers and our communities are focusing on proper response to this international crisis.

As a member of the Curyung Tribal Council in Dillingham, as well as a fisherman who was born and raised in Bristol Bay, all of this is extremely concerning from every angle. Before this pandemic, we were worried about the environmental impacts that the proposed mine brings to our renewable and sustainable resource. Now we are worried how coronavirus can devastate our communities and industry that we heavily rely on as thousands of outside workers are trying to come to our villages.

Our communities and tribes are scrambling with plans to prevent death and disaster in our families. Tragically, we aren’t new to pandemics. The 1918 Spanish Influenza killed many of our ancestors (as many as 60%, according to what my elder stated) the following year in 1919 when disease spread throughout our region, leaving many of my elders and ancestors homeless. Bristol Bay is an international resource, and we have usually have seafood workers coming from around the world each summer. As such, we are naturally upset that spread of this global virus could have profound impacts in our communities, especially for our much-respected elders that are especially at risk.


It’s reprehensible that Pete Kelly — as well as both Pebble and the Army Corps of Engineers — announced that despite this crisis, they are continuing to rush this politically motivated permit timeline to help Pebble. This is despite Bristol Bay’s largest tribe, a cooperating agency, requested a proper review extension during this trying time. The Army Corps, sadly, didn’t grant this despite their trust responsibility to listen to our tribes. Federal agencies reviewing this permit shouldn’t rush on anything else except to battle the coronavirus! Their decisions on what to prioritize will undoubtedly have profound impacts on many Alaskans. Pebble’s not worth a rushed, flawed and inadequate review process while the federal and state governments are strained in their war against COVID-19.

The Army Corps and the state need to refrain from working on, let alone finalizing, Pebble’s environmental impact study and making a Record of Decision during this global emergency. We all still have so much work to do on both Pebble’s application, but most importantly to combat this novel coronavirus. Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan rightly expressed concern about this timeline. They, Rep. Don Young and Gov. Mike Dunleavy must act to delay any review on Pebble at the state and federal level. Bristol Bay, the state and federal government have too much to bear right now.

Hopefully in 2020, we’ll remember our leaders doing the right thing to protect the health and wellbeing of all Americans and those in Bristol Bay, from both the coronavirus and rushed environmental reviews. Our world’s future is in the balance. It’s up to them to protect our livelihoods and, ultimately, our lives.

Verner Wilson III is a member of the Curyung Tribal Council in Dillingham.  He was born and raised salmon fishing in Bristol Bay. He has a degree in environmental studies from Brown University and a master’s degree in environmental management from Yale University. He is senior oceans campaigner for Friends of the Earth U.S.