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Vol. 12, No. 4 Week of January 28, 2007
Providing coverage of Alaska and Northwest Canada's mineral industry

MINING NEWS: Alaskans offer to tell truth about Pebble

New organization will present facts to public about economic benefits of Northern Dynasty’s controversial copper-gold project

Sarah Hurst

For Mining News

A broad spectrum of Alaskans who support the proposed Pebble mine have formed a non-profit organization to inform the public about Northern Dynasty’s copper-gold project in the Bristol Bay region. Truth About Pebble was officially launched at a meeting of the Resource Development Council in Anchorage Jan. 18 with speeches by three of the new organization’s board members.

Truth About Pebble’s chairman, Dick Cattanach, who is executive director of the Associated General Contractors of Alaska, told the RDC that the opposition to Pebble reminds him of the “distortions and misrepresentations” in the campaign against opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling, except that the anti-ANWR campaign is mainly based outside Alaska. Cattanach said he never expected to see such activities happening within the state.

“I thought that there should be a fair and level playing ground for the facts to come out and decisions to be made,” Cattanach said. “We’re dealing with facts, not hyperbole. We just want the facts to be known and people to make an intelligent, conscious decision,” he added. Truth About Pebble’s members are Alaskans who believe that the permitting process should be allowed to work, Cattanach told the RDC.

“We believe that if the project survives the permitting process — and that’s an if — it will provide economic opportunities to a large group of Alaskans that have little hope for jobs in that area,” Cattanach said. “We believe, and this is very important for many of us, that not allowing the project to go forward through the permitting stage will send a chilling message to all companies looking to do business in Alaska,” he added.

Phillips: most of Alaska’s wealth has come from resources

Ever since it became a U.S. territory in 1912, most of Alaska’s wealth has come from the development of natural resources, Truth About Pebble’s vice chairman, Gail Phillips, told the RDC. Phillips, a graduate of Nome High School and the University of Alaska, was a two-term speaker of the state’s House of Representatives in the 1990s, serving in the Legislature for a decade.

“When I was speaker of the House of Representatives, the revisions and updating of our well-established permitting process was a high priority,” Phillips said. “We did not do this in a vacuum. All of the policy refinements were accomplished in an open public process. The best scientific advice was applied while conforming to state and federal guidelines and the adamant direction of the people of Alaska to do things right, and we are doing things right.”

Alaska has the most environmentally safe resource development projects in the nation, Phillips told the RDC. The state’s permitting system is commonly used as a model by other states and other countries, she added. “If we allow one group of bullies to influence and buy off all those that must ensure our fair and equitable permitting process, how will this affect future development projects? The answer is negatively, and it will be a disaster,” Phillips said. “What truly bothers me is seeing an attempt by an organized group to prohibit the permitting process to go forward with the Pebble mine. This attempt to limit the process is so unfair that it is un-Alaskan and un-American,” she added.

Reimers: Economic problems have been ignored

The economic problems of the Bristol Bay area were largely ignored until Northern Dynasty came in and put local residents in the spotlight, Truth About Pebble board member Lisa Reimers told the RDC. Reimers is also a board member of Iliamna Natives Limited and general manager of Iliamna Development Corp. Iliamna is one of several villages close to the Pebble site. “All of a sudden we have all your attention, and before we were like, OK, we need help, where is everybody, you know, we need to figure out our economy, how are our people going to sustain ourselves,” Reimers said.

Before the Pebble project there were few opportunities for young people to find jobs in the region’s villages, Reimers said. Although Iliamna Development had no business experience, Northern Dynasty trusted it with contracts, she added. “We want everyone to know that it’s been good for the economy out there,” Reimers said. “We’re worried about our environment; this is what we grew up with, this is what my mom grew up with, is the fish; but we also need to look at something to (diversify) our economy, because as leaders we’re supposed to provide an economy, and we were struggling.”

The leaders of Iliamna Natives want to allow Northern Dynasty to continue its studies, according to Reimers. “As long as they can do a good, safe mine, we have to look at it, and it’s been great working with Northern Dynasty, and the opportunities out there have been very positive,” she said. “The local people in the community have been taking pride in their work, we as a corporation have been growing, and it’s been good. ... They can pay their fuel bills, they can pay for gas, which is $5 a gallon.”

Other board members of Truth About Pebble include Anchorage businesswoman Sharon Anderson, longtime Iliamna Natives board member Myrtle Anelon, Kenai businessmen Fred Braun and Bob Favretto, Anchorage assemblyman Dan Sullivan and Anchorage geologist Chuck Hawley. Membership in the organization is free and it encourages anyone with an interest in the project to sign up.

Truth About Pebble received words of encouragement from Matthew Nikolai, president and CEO of Calista, a Native corporation for the Bethel area, where the Donlin Creek gold project is providing jobs for local people.

Two Pebble opponents from the Bristol Bay Alliance also spoke during the question-and-answer session at the RDC meeting, asking where they had made misrepresentations about the project and objecting to being characterized as bullies. “This is a free country; we can speak out on what we believe,” said one of them, Mel Brown.

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Miners, jewelers, NGOs working together on responsible standards

Pebble opponents tried a new angle at the beginning of this year with a series of advertisements in National Jeweler, an industry publication, calling on jewelers to pledge not to use gold sourced from the proposed mine. Washington, D.C.-based environmental group Earthworks, which focuses on mining, paid for the ads.

The appeal to jewelers doesn’t impress Toni Logan, vice president of Oxford Assaying & Refining in Anchorage. “A lot of self-serving interests are laying out a lot of money to fight a mine they don’t even understand,” she told Mining News. In any case, jewelers don’t know where their gold originates from, Logan added. “One of the characteristics of gold that goes back 5,000 years is the anonymity of it. Since Biblical times it’s been re-melted and re-sold,” she said. Logan is a board member of the new Truth About Pebble organization that aims to inform the public about the project.

Nevertheless, consumers are increasingly demanding more ethical scrutiny of the products they purchase, and the diamond industry has been under the microscope lately with the release of the Hollywood movie Blood Diamond, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Connelly.

Jewelers of America involved with initiatives

Jewelers of America, the national association for retail jewelers, is involved with various mining-related initiatives. In November 2005 the association’s president, Matthew Runci, wrote to former House Speaker Dennis Hastert opposing provisions in a bill that would have given public land to corporations and private interests.

“JA supports meaningful reform to the clearly outdated Mining Act of 1872,” Runci wrote. “Our 11,000 member stores, spread throughout the United States, firmly believe that mining reforms should include strict environmental regulations that adequately protect our nation’s watersheds, forests and wildlife and should institute fair market value fees for mining claims on federal lands.” The mining provisions in the bill were removed at the last minute.

Some of JA’s current activities are a direct response to the Pebble project, according to a statement the association gave to Mining News. “The public controversy that has erupted concerning the proposed Pebble mine project in Alaska’s Bristol Bay watershed illustrates clearly the need for broadly agreed standards for the responsible sourcing of minerals as well as an agreed method for evidencing adherence to these standards,” the statement said. “Jewelers of America is working, along with individual jewelry retailers, mining companies and NGOs, on just such standards, through the Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance (IRMA).”

IRMA launched in mid-2006

IRMA was launched in Vancouver in June 2006 and includes representatives from mining companies AngloGold Ashanti, BHP Billiton, DeBeers, Newmont, Rio Tinto and Xstrata as well as several NGOs, including Earthworks and the Renewable Resources Coalition. The group intends to create an independent, third party assurance system to ensure that mines operate in an environmentally and socially responsible manner, and hopes that the initial set of standards will be completed by July of this year.

No individual mines or projects have been discussed by the IRMA participants, Newmont’s vice president for environmental affairs and sustainable development, Dave Baker, told Mining News. Baker is one of three industry representatives on IRMA’s coordinating committee. “It’s been a very open and I think a very positive dialogue,” he said. “We focus on areas like the cyanide code, community consultation and information disclosure. ... It’s about building a supply chain of confidence; we’re not going to try to track one ounce of gold from the mine to the retail case. We’ll be able to say that it has been produced according to a certain set of principles, like a seal of approval.”

“Earthworks is trying to point to policies and mines that we think are steps in the right direction,” Earthworks President Steve D’Esposito told Mining News. D’Esposito is one of four NGO and community representatives on IRMA’s coordinating committee. He cited Stillwater Mining’s “good neighbor” agreement with a community in Montana and BHP Billiton’s policy not to dispose of tailings in rivers at new mines as examples of improved practices by the mining industry.

But Earthworks’ campaign against Pebble will continue. “There are some places where the other (nonmineral) natural resource values are too significant, and Pebble is one of those places,” D’Esposito added.

—Sarah Hurst