Still on the drawing board: '09 Pebble focus to be on engineering, environment, economics of project

Posted: Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Just uttering the words, "Pebble Mine," will not only elicit a response but mostly likely a firm opinion.

Photo By M. Scott Moon
Photo By M. Scott Moon
A helicopter moves equipment into place last summer at a work site at the Pebble Project's proposed mine north of Lake Iliamna, on the west side of Cook Inlet. The company expects to continue similar work this summer, according to the project's vice president of public affairs, Mike Heatwole.

Because the issue is so controversial, Pebble Partnership -- a company consisting of Anglo American and Northern Dynasty Minerals seeking to develop Pebble Mine -- has been visiting areas of the state that would be most affected by the mine, should the project get green-lighted, to spread information and keep residents updated on its progress.

Mike Heatwole, Pebble Partnership vice president of public affairs, spoke Tuesday at The Alaska Industry Support Alliance monthly meeting to do just that for the central peninsula.

"This is not a fish versus mining issue," Heatwole said. "If it was, fish would always win."

Heatwole said Pebble Partnership's goal is to find a way for mining and fish to co-exist.

This year, the focus will be on pre-feasibility, Heatwole said. Engineering, environmental issues and the economics of the project will be explored.

So far, $100 million has been invested in environmental studies, Heatwole said.

Pebble Partnership has released the raw data they've collected on its environmental studies so far. That information can be found at Pebble Partnership's Web site, www.pebblepartnership.com.

"Water is the big issue relative to the project," Heatwole said. Groundwater, surface water and fish habitats will be focused on for 2009.

The project will require hundreds of permits, 67 of which will be "major permits," Heatwole said. Though the Department of Natural Resources is a major player in the permitting process, several other agencies are involved.

"No single entity gives you a thumbs up for thumbs down," Heatwole said. "This will be a very heavily scrutinized project."

The mine, northwest of Iliamna, contains large deposits of copper, gold and molybdenum. If developed, the mine would be one of the largest, if not the largest, of its kind in the world.

"We're after the copper," Heatwole said. Pebble Partnership would not have undertaken a project of this scale just to extract the gold, he said.

Heatwole estimated the project will require anywhere from 200 to 600 megawatts of power. The partnership has stated they will not use diesel fuel to power the plant. Currently, natural gas is the cheapest form of power, however, Heatwole said alternatives such as wind and hydroelectricity are being considered.

At this point, everything is an estimation. Until it's been determined what type of mine will be built and the rate of mining, questions such as how many construction jobs the project will create and the mine's life span will remain unanswered.

Heatwole compared copper to oil, saying the demand will continue to surpass the supply. As the world moves toward greener forms of energy, more copper will be required. Heatwole said solar panels and wind turbines use a significant amount of copper in their electrical components. Hybrid cars, he said, require twice as much copper compared to other vehicles.

Should the project reach the permitting stage, Heatwole estimated two to three years to pass through it.

Mike Nesper can be reached at mike.nesper@peninsulaclarion.com.



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