Representatives of the Pebble Limited Partnership have spent the last several years traveling around Alaska making presentations to communities and chambers of commerce about their proposed mine project near Lake Iliamna.
They faced perhaps their most important audience yet last month when visiting Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson made her first trip to Alaska.
Jackson requested the meeting with the Pebble partnership, a 50-50 joint venture between London-based Anglo American and Vancouver-based Northern Dynasty Minerals Ltd., at the EPA Anchorage offices.
The mine is estimated to hold more than $400 billion worth of copper, gold and molybdenum. Exploratory activity continues this summer; Pebble is expected to unveil the scope of its plan and begin the permitting process late this year or early in 2011.
The Pebble project will require at least 67 major permits, including dozens at the federal level, along with scores of secondary permits for actions such as stream crossings. The governing process is the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, which begins when Pebble applies for its first federal permit, likely from the U.S. Corps of Engineers.
From there, the state Department of Natural Resources will coordinate the permit process because the claim lies on state land designated for mining.
Mike Heatwole, Pebble's vice president for community affairs, gave a 90-minute briefing to Jackson, EPA Region 10 Administrator Dennis McLerran and staff before the EPA contingent traveled to Dillingham to meet with stakeholders in the Bristol Bay region.
"It was a good opportunity and we were appreciated that they invited us over before they went out to the region," Heatwole said. "They wanted to hear straight from us."
In Dillingham, Jackson heard unanimous opposition to the Pebble project according to multiple press reports of the listening session from Native subsistence users, and sport and commercial fishermen who fear the Pebble mine will negatively impact the world's largest salmon run and pristine wilderness.
The salmon returns to Bristol Bay are valued at more than $400 million per year and recently ended sockeye season yielded the highest prices to fishermen in more than 20 years.
Heatwole described Jackson as "engaged" during the briefing, which he said was not unlike the presentations he's given many times before but did focus on the rigor involved not only in the permit process, but also on Pebble's scientific studies performed to date.
The partnership has spent more than $100 million since 2004 collecting baseline data on water quality, fish and wildlife species, wetlands and socio-economic factors.
The socio-economics of the Pebble partnership was another emphasis for Heatwole as he described the declining population in the Bristol Bay region, the workforce training opportunities already under way and Pebble's commitment to local hiring.
"(Jackson) seemed particularly interested when we were talking about workforce development programs and the local opportunity that could be realized from this," Heatwole said.
Heatwole did express some disappointment that Jackson chose to travel to Dillingham, where opposition to Pebble is strongest, and not to Iliamna where many residents are more favorably disposed toward the project.
"I do think it was missed opportunity to not travel to Iliamna or Naknek to get the broader perspective on people's thoughts about Pebble," he said.
Richard Thompson, who was chief of police in Dillingham for 25 years, said he would like to see more open minds in his hometown of 28 years.
"I believe it's a beautiful place, a wonderful place," Thompson said. "There is a lot very, very good people there. But it has a very, very delicate economic base that comes and goes with whether or not fish show up and prices cooperate. For the survival of the region, with the current and future economies in mind, the region would benefit strongly from good-paying year-round jobs that are not tied directly to the success or failure of the fishery."
Thompson, now retired, said he is not a Pebble advocate.
"I'm not a proponent of the Pebble mine by any stretch of the imagination," he said. "What I'm seeing is an incredibly strong emotional appeal to reject the mine without supplying anything positive in regards to my statement that we need jobs not tied to the fishery. I'm willing to keep an open mind and hold their feet to the fire to make sure they do it right.
"I'm willing to do all the screaming and yelling I need so that if the mine is done, it is done right."
The EPA and Alaska DNR traveled back to Dillingham and to Newhalen, which is near Iliamna, Aug. 11 and 12 for mining information sessions. The sessions covered mining fundamentals from exploration to mineral processing, environmental concerns, regulations and the permitting process, and how tribes and community members can get involved.
In other Pebble news, the state Legislative Council has formed a subcommittee to set the parameters for a third-party study of the potential Pebble mine impact.
The $750,000 appropriation was inserted into the capital budget late in the legislative session concluded April 18. The Pebble partnership, Resource Development Council and Alaska Miners Association had all asked Gov. Sean Parnell to veto the study as overlapping the existing permit process and an unprecedented legislative action targeting a specific project.
Parnell allowed the study to go forward, and council chair Rep. John Harris, R-Valdez, has named a subcommittee to develop the study. Ultimately the full council will vote on whether to go forward with the study. The 14-member council is down one member, as former representative and council member Nancy Dahlstrom resigned from the House to take a job as military affairs advisor for Parnell. Dahlstrom later had to resign that position in controversy as a violation of the state constitution prohibition against legislators taking jobs that were created while they were in office.
The subcommittee is chaired by House Speaker Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, and includes Rep. Bill Stoltze, R-Chugiak, Rep. David Guttenberg, D-Fairbanks, Senate President Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, Sen. Dennis Egan, D-Juneau and Sen. Lyman Hoffman, D-Bethel.
First up for the subcommittee is to determine whether to perform the study as a sole-source contract or to put out a request for proposals, or RFP. Some members of the council, including Stevens, have advocated for a sole-source contract to the National Academy of Sciences.
After determining whether it will be sole-source or RFP, the parameters of the study must be set, which is another source of controversy. Chenault's office said public hearings on the study may take place by early September.
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