Vol. 11, No. 17 Week of April 23, 2006
Providing coverage of Alaska and Northwest Canada's mineral industry

MINING NEWS: Northern Dynasty strikes back on Pebble

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After fending off an attempt in the Legislature to slow down Pebble project, mining company will spend $40 million in 2006

Sarah Hurst

For Mining News

The world will need the equivalent of 28 more discoveries the size of Alaska’s Pebble deposit by the year 2016 if demand for copper continues at the current rate. That’s the powerful message from Vancouver-based Northern Dynasty, Pebble’s developer, part of the company’s effort to rebut the wave of attacks on the project spearheaded by environmentalists, lodge-owners and U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens. Alaska’s senior senator has said he might be more sympathetic to Pebble if it were going to produce an “essential commodity.”

Everyone is entitled to their opinion, even if they are wrong, Northern Dynasty’s chief operating officer, Bruce Jenkins told a large crowd at an Alaska Miners Association lunch in Anchorage April 12. “That doesn’t entitle you to use misinformation or blatant lies or propaganda to force or scare other people into sharing your view before all the facts are on the table, before, in fact, the project’s even defined, and that’s what we’re dealing with now,” Jenkins said. “We deal with this in every jurisdiction for all of our projects, none of this is a surprise to us, but there are some tactics that are being employed that are, let me just say, are less than honorable.”

As an example of some of the misinformation being spread about the project, Jenkins mentioned that an opponent of Pebble had suggested that a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier would be required to lay the submarine cable that would provide power to the mine. “I don’t know where this comes from, but I can assure you that a 45-mile submarine cable across Cook Inlet could be installed within a week, from the ships that actually go to the cable manufacturing plant and get (it) wound on a spool,” Jenkins said.

In the past four years Northern Dynasty has spent $72 million on the Pebble project, of which $28 million went to environmental studies and community relations, $26 million to drilling and $18 million to engineering. The budget for 2006 is $40 million, of which approximately $15-$16 million will be spent on environment and community relations, according to Jenkins. The company is looking at its 26th mine development concept and won’t submit permit applications until 2008 at the earliest. In that case production might begin in 2013 or 2014.

There is no guarantee that the project will get through the rigorous permitting process and it is a very high-risk investment, Jenkins stressed. “Notwithstanding the controversy surrounding our project, these are just preliminary skirmishes,” he said. “They’re not that important in the overall scheme of things because the real debate will be in the public permitting process where you’ll be held accountable for what you say and you’ll be expected to defend what you say, for or against the project, and I welcome that debate.”

Pebble East could add 20-30 years to mine life

The politics of the project haven’t diminished Northern Dynasty’s excitement about its recent Pebble East find, a much richer and deeper deposit than the original Pebble West deposit, which would be mined by open pit methods. The company intends to continue drilling Pebble East with the goal of fully delineating the zone by the end of this year. Pebble East could potentially add another 20 or 30 years to the existing 30- or 40-year mine life, according to Jenkins.

Northern Dynasty is considering the block caving method for underground mining of the Pebble East deposit. Controlled failure of the ore would take place underground, with gravity causing the rock to fracture, tumble down and cave in at a chosen location, from where it could be mucked out and sent up to the surface by conveyor belt. As part of the feasibility work for Pebble East, Northern Dynasty may file permit applications in 2007 to sink an exploration shaft into the deposit, a project that could cost around $150 million by itself.

“We have deep pockets, we’re here to stay, and no amount of controversy’s going to scare us back to Canada,” Jenkins said. Northern Dynasty hopes to form a consortium to develop Pebble with perhaps two or more major mining and smelting companies. This has been done at several other large mines, including Antamina in Peru (owned by BHP Billiton, Falconbridge, Teck Cominco and Mitsubishi) and Collahuasi in Chile (owned by Anglo American, Falconbridge and Mitsui-Nippon).

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