The Alaska Department of Natural Resources made an effort to make large mine permitting more transparent to the general public Nov. 13, with the first of three statewide November workshops.
The reason for the workshops, ordered by DNR Commissioner Tom Irwin, was to provide information on how state and federal agencies evaluate mine projects in Alaska before permitting them to proceed.
"We are holding these workshops due to the heightened interest in large mining activity in Alaska," said Tom Crafford, large mine project manager for the state Department of Natural Resources.
"OK, let's not beat around the bush; this is really all about Pebble mine," he added.
Pebble mine is a massive copper-gold-molybdenum deposit in southwestern Alaska by Northern Dynasty Minerals Ltd.
Northern Dynasty was recently joined in a 50-50 joint-venture partnership with Anglo American, a major international mining company, to develop the Pebble project. Previously Rio Tinto, another major mining company, purchased about 20 percent of Northern Dynasty's shares.
While Pebble has not submitted a mining application with the state yet, it has submitted applications for water rights permits, a first stage in the mammoth permitting process.
"Do we ever say no to a permit application?" Crafford said. "Yes we do. And some mines modify their projects, and others walk away."
Crafford used the example of Echo Bay Mines, which proposed reopening the Alaska-Juneau Gold Mine.
State agencies did not approve the company's proposed uplands tailings storage facility. Echo Bay Mines had no alternatives to offer for tailings disposal and abandoned and closed the project in 1997 after investing more than $100 million.
To date Alaska has five producing mines in the state. Only the Healy mine produces coal; the rest are hard rock mines.
According to Crafford, DNR may get one application a year, which then triggers a lengthy process that goes through a dozen hands before it is approved or denied.
The team of officials presenting the workshop was lead by Crafford and Ed Fogels, director of the Office of Habitat Management and Permitting, a division of DNR.
The duo hosted a bevy of bureaucrats who spent three hours flashing state and federal requirements of the permitting process in a 60-page PowerPoint presentation.
Crafford presented "Mining 101" with slides depicting placer, open pit and underground mines. The presentation was complete with explanations about how metals are separated out of the ore and that the tailings the leftovers are either stored dry or wet. He described how they are disposed of and finally the process of reclamation.
The Anchorage workshop was held at the Anchorage Hilton Hotel. Katmai is a stone's throw across Lake Iliamna from the location of the controversial Pebble Mine.
The information session, attended by less than 70 people, started during a late afternoon snow squall.
While a host of state and federal employees offered overview explanations, rife with acronyms about the complicated government process of permitting, some thought that the procedures are just a way to legally permit polluting.
"Is the state looking at how this is affecting subsistence?" said Darla Jimewok, from the Norton Sound village of Elim. "Subsistence is very important to our small village of 300 people. Are these big mines, with all the money in the world, just buying their way to get what they want and it will kill our fish, our animals, our lifestyle?"
Fogels explained that the state takes great care in examining the effects of mining on subsistence, and used the example of the Pogo mine near Delta Junction.
"We spent three years once the Pogo EIS (environmental impact statement) was initiated in 2000, and consulted with 12 tribes before the process was completed in 2003," Fogels said.
The team also emphasized that many processes have been improved and that state water and air quality standards are higher than federal Environmental Protection Agency guidelines.
"The Alaska standard for water is more stringent, and a higher standard than drinking water," said Cindy Godsey with the EPA.
Godsey presented an explanation about the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System, a federal regulatory requirement that makes discharge legal, but limits the amount of pollutants allowed to be discharged.
When the workshop team finished up their presentations, they opened the session up to questions from the public. After hours of explanations, Grant Walthers popped an obvious one that stumped state officials. "What is the legal definition of a large, medium or small mine in Alaska? And do they all have to meet the same permitting standards?"
"Oh, ah, there is no definition based on mine size, I guess we just make it up as we go along," Fogels said.
Perhaps the question that everyone was waiting to hear, and burning to be asked, came from a Nushagak resident.
"Once permitted will the Pebble Mine have an impact on fish?" said the Bristol Bay fisherman, who asked not to be identified.
"That's what the permitting process is all about," Fogels said. "We want to find out as much as possible about the affects of a mine before we let anyone effect the quality of Alaska's environment or habitat."
DNR officials were to give the same workshop in Fairbanks and Juneau last week.
Workshops for other communities, including Homer, Dillingham, King Salmon and Bethel, will be announced by DNR as soon as the dates are confirmed.
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