Army Corps overturns IPOP’s permit application denial
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is reconsidering a previously denied permit application submitted by IPOP, which sought permission to dredge for gold in Bonanza Channel and Safety Sound.
In a memo signed on Aug. 18, Brigadier General Kirk Gibbs, commander of the Corps’ Pacific Ocean Division, said he found that additional review of IPOP’s permit application is warranted.
IPOP’s initial application for a wetlands fill permit was denied by the Corps’ Alaska District last year. IPOP appealed the decision. Throughout the appeal process and in IPOP’s lawsuits against the federal agency, IPOP has alleged that the Alaska District has shown bias against them, and instead allegedly favored Alaska Native tribes and corporations.
“I do not decide the merit of such allegations here,” Gibbs wrote. “However, I take the integrity of our regulatory program very seriously, and even the appearance of bias is concerning.”
Gibbs did not offer further details about what swayed his decision that these accusations merited further review. He vacated the Alaska District’s permit denial. Now, IPOP’s permit will be reconsidered by the Pacific Ocean Division.
In a letter to IPOP’s Beau Epstein, also dated Aug. 18, Gibbs wrote that he will making the permit decision after a “comprehensive review” of the application.
“The Pacific Ocean Division will assign a regulatory project manager to this matter, and they will contact you regarding the anticipated reviewed and decision timeline,” Gibbs wrote to Epstein. “If my decision on the permit application is a permit denial or results in a declined permit, that permit denial or declined permit will be subject to an administrative appeal to the Chief of Engineers.”
A long saga
Nevada-based IPOP LLC has faced strong local opposition since the company’s proposed project first came to light. IPOP’s original pitch to investors in 2017 included an associated reality television show called “Rivers of Gold.” IPOP now claims that it has since abandoned the television show idea. However, the California-based Rivers of Gold, Global TV Show and Global Merchandising LP was listed as a plaintiff in the lawsuit IPOP filed against the Corps in May of 2022 to compel the agency to decide on its permit.
IPOP holds 32 state mining claims in the Solomon area, but it needs a permit from the Corps to begin operations. It submitted its application in 2018, proposing to dredge for gold over a six-year period. The plan would involve moving nearly five million cubic yards of material and impact 192.5 acres of vegetated shallows and mudflats in Bonanza Channel and Safety Sound. It would be the first suction dredge mining operation of this scale in an estuary, according to the Corps.
Colonel Damon Delarosa, commander of the Alaska District, wrote in the decision denying the permit in September 2022, that IPOP “failed to adequately show that their proposal is the least environmentally damaging practicable alternative.” The decision was based on extensive consultations with other agencies and tribal partners as well as public input, Delarosa noted.
In the 157-page long decision document, the Alaska District determined that the project would impact subsistence opportunities and lacked substantive information and coherent plans. The Corps cast doubt over whether the group had sufficient proof that the resource they intended to mine was even present. It also found IPOP’s reclamation plan lacking. The mining outfit had proposed to permanently alter the structure of Bonanza Channel, making one segment deeper and others shallower, as part of a reclamation proposal that IPOP claimed would improve the distribution of fish and bird habitat.
The Corps has said that less than one percent of all requests for permits are denied nationwide; those that are rejected, typically have refused to alter aspects of their proposals.
IPOP appealed the Corps’ decision in November 2022. The company and its investors also filed a suit against the Corps in January 2023, asking a judge for the Western District of Louisiana to excuse them from the appeal process or address the “unreasonable” delays in the appeal process. IPOP has said it is justified in filing its suits against the Corps in Louisiana, because it is the home state of two investors listed as plaintiffs, and because the company claimed the project faced bias in Alaska. A judge tossed that suit in May.
July meeting in Nome
After the Corps accepted IPOP’s appeal, a reviewer decided in January that a site visit would be necessary. That meeting would have to wait until the ice-free season. Representatives from IPOP and the Alaska District met with review officers from the Pacific Ocean Division in Nome July 18 to 20, 2023. They went to see the site of IPOP’s proposed operations and met for a conference in the Council Chambers at Nome’s City Hall.
A 62-page memo detailing that meeting was attached to Gibbs’ decision. The names of those present are redacted, but both parties answered a series of questions related to the appeal.
Throughout the conference, the Alaska District maintained that it had no ulterior motive and is neither a proponent nor an opponent of any project, but that has a process to follow. IPOP’s representatives, meanwhile, detailed their perceived mistreatment by the Alaska District and their frustration with the permitting process.
“The Appellant stated its belief that the District disregarded the facts, unreasonably rejected the data provided by the Appellant, and relied on comments from the public and tribal interests regarding environmental conditions and resource utilization without validating them as fact,” the memo’s description of IPOP’s opening statement reads. “The Appellant voiced its belief that the District helped the Native Village of Solomon gather information to oppose the Appellant’s project and identified records that it contends demonstrate that fact. The Appellant also identified other records demonstrating its belief that the District assisted project opponents in various ways. The Appellant voiced its concern that it was being treated differently than other permit applicants and stated that all it is asking for is a fair evaluation of its permit application.”
IPOP claimed the District Engineer met with “the rogue’s gallery of Alaska Native Corporation opponents” while refusing to meet with IPOP. Representatives of the company also said that Alaska Native opponents of the project were using subsistence as a “club with which to attack IPOP, rather than having any genuine interest in how the project could enhance local fish and wildlife.” IPOP continued to claim that the area to be mined “is of very limited use (and no specific use) for subsistence purposes.”
In response to questions from the Pacific Division, the Alaska District detailed how IPOP refused the Corps’ requests for additional substantive information. The District also maintained that tom cod, whitefish, salmon and migratory birds would be temporarily impacted during the project, while additional resources like plants and berries could be impacted by a man camp area. These determinations were made based on information from public comments, agency comments and consultation with federally recognized tribes and Native corporations, the District said. The District representatives also noted during the meeting that IPOP’s proposed project would impact an area that is a “unique resource” and easily accessible, which means more subsistence users would be impacted.
Fish camps around Safety Sound, Nuuk and Solomon attest to the region’s importance for subsistence activities, though many structures were damaged or swept away by last year’s Typhoon Merbok.
And after the spring breakup, when migratory birds return to the Seward Peninsula, the region is crowded with eiders, scoters, gulls, terns—and birders hoping to see those and other species.
That context was not included in the Pacific Ocean Division’s description of the site visit. During that three-day meeting, representatives from the Corps and IPOP took two visits to the site of the proposed project area and its surroundings. They spent a total of six hours in the area. The memo said the Council Highway “was generally free of any traffic and provided multiple access locations to Refuge property. No birdwatchers or subsistence hunters were observed at the Bonanza Channel. No boat traffic was observed in the Bonanza Channel.”
When asked about its correspondence with Solomon Native Corporation, the Alaska District said during the meeting that “under law and policy, ANCSA corporations are afforded a specific consultation status different than that of another adjacent landowner.”
In its own guidelines for the permitting process, the Corps states that coordination with tribes and Native corporations is necessary for many projects.
IPOP is applying for an Individual Permit through the Corps. This type of permit is used for projects proposing “extensive impacts or impacts to rare or special aquatic types.” According to the guidelines for issuing such a permit: “Projects have the potential to significantly affect protected tribal rights or resources, and federally recognized tribes and ANCSA regional and village corporations must be notified of their right to identify those protected rights or resources and invite USACE to government-to-government consultation or government to corporation consultation.”