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Vol. 15, No. 13 Week of March 28, 2010
Providing coverage of Alaska and Northwest Canada's mineral industry

Mining News: Pebble gets further scrutiny in Juneau

Lawmakers consider whether proposed mine’s size and proximity to Bristol Bay warrants independent review of permitting process

Shane Lasley

Mining News

Lawmakers took testimony March 19 on the idea of whether an independent review of the state’s large-mine permitting and environmental standards is warranted in light of an anticipated mine permit application from the Pebble Limited Partnership.

A joint panel of the Alaska House Special Committee on Fisheries and Senate Resources Committee held the hearing in response to a letter sent by the Alaska Board of Fisheries, which requests lawmakers “conduct a comprehensive evaluation of the permitting protections and standards, including regulations and statutes, which provide safeguards against environmental damage.”

The legislators heard from a state regulator and parties both for and against developing the controversial Pebble deposit located in Bristol Bay, home of a world-class sockeye salmon fishery.

At the onset of the hearing Rep. Bryce Edgmon, D-Dillingham, asked the two fundamental questions: “Is the Pebble Mine so much larger in size, in scope and in magnitude … than the other mines Alaska has throughout the state? And given its proximity right next to the very valuable fishery out in the Bristol Bay watershed, is it time to bring in a third-party assessment?”

Lawmakers and testifiers alike seemed to support some kind of third-party review of the permitting process in relation to permitting the enormous proposed copper-gold-molybdenum Pebble deposit. The National Academy of Sciences was one such entity put forward by the legislators.

DNR welcomes study

Ed Fogels, director of project management and permitting at the Alaska Department of Natural Resources, told the committees the state has a good permitting process and that Alaska’s current mining operations are evidence of that.

However, there is always room for improvement and the department “would welcome the opportunity to find out ways to improve our process,” he said.

Fogels said he is worried, though, that a study of Pebble permitting could set a precedent of requiring such studies for other projects that wish to get permitted in the state.

Pebble Partnership CEO John Shively also is concerned the effect scrutinizing Pebble could have on other mining projects in the state, noting that past attempts to stop Pebble have taken a shotgun approach that could affect Alaska’s entire mining industry.

Pointing to several examples of where the permitting process has gone awry in Alaska – delaying or stopping development projects – the former DNR commissioner suggested that, if the legislature orders a study, they should look into the process, not just the statutes.

Size matters

Rick Halford, a former state legislator, warned the lawmakers about dangers that he believes such a large sulfide mine could pose to the Bristol Bay fishery.

Using images of the Pebble footprint laid over Anchorage and his rendition of a tailings dam for the copper mine, Dr. David Chambers, president of the Center for Sciences and Public Participation, also warned of the potential danger of building a mine at the enormous deposit.

“Although Dr. Chambers here has engineered our tailings facility for us, we are not quite done with it yet,” Shively jibed.

The Pebble CEO told the legislators that the partnership does not intend to permit the entire Pebble deposit, but will probably only apply for the first 25-40 years of mine life.

Though the latest estimates point to early in 2011, Shively said he wasn’t sure when the Pebble Partnership would be ready to apply for permits.

“We are not driven by a date to get into permitting. We are driven by trying to put a project together that meets the high environmental standards we know have to be met and is economic,” Shively said.

The legislators expressed concerns about whether the state agencies would be ready to handle the permit application and the massive amount of associated data when Pebble did submit its permit applications.

Fogels explained to the lawmakers that the permitting process is not static, but grows with the size of the project being permitted.

The DNR director said he will likely hire additional staff and third-party specialists to handle the Pebble application if it is submitted. Also, he said DNR would need to assign a full-time coordinator to handle matters related to permitting the enormous copper-gold-molybdenum project.

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