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My Turn: Keep your powder dry

Posted: Monday, April 03, 2006

"Ready, aim, fire" is the traditional litany of any marksmen hoping to hit his target. But critics of the Pebble mineral development have confused that sequence, firing aimless broadsides at the project even before a clear target has emerged.

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Recent efforts to inflame public opinion against the Pebble copper-gold deposit as an inevitable environmental catastrophe ignore two fundamental truths. First, Pebble is not a working mine. It's a mineral deposit whose owners, though certainly busy determining its extent, have yet to file a single permit to begin building a working mine. Second, the state has a comprehensive process established in law to ensure any mineral development at the site will be done right, or it won't be done at all.

The Pebble deposit lies 236 miles west of Anchorage. It holds approximately 31.1 million ounces of gold, 18.8 billion pounds of copper in measured and indicated resources, and 10.8 million ounces of gold and 5.9 billion pounds of copper in inferred resources. How much would be feasible to mine is yet to be determined.

Such numbers mean Pebble could be one of the largest mineral deposits in the world. They could justify investments creating hundreds of construction jobs and 1,000 permanent jobs in a region where the declining commercial fishing industry has left some residents eager for a more diverse and stable economy. Mine proponents hope to duplicate the success of the Red Dog zinc mine, which generates hundreds of jobs for rural Alaskans and funds most of the local government and economy of Northwest Alaska.

Like Red Dog, however, any development at Pebble would be subject to strict environmental regulations, laws and permitting restrictions. There is no argument that the land and waters surrounding the Pebble deposit help support Bristol Bay's hugely important commercial, subsistence and sport fisheries. What should be equally clear, though, is that the Department of Natural Resources is committed to meeting its responsibility to balance the potential economic and social benefits with the potential risks to the region's renewable resources.

Over the last decade, our department has assembled a Large Mine Project Team, an interagency group that works cooperatively with large-mine applicants and operators, federal resource managers, local governments and the Alaska public to ensure mining projects are designed, operated and reclaimed in a manner consistent with the public interest. These experienced professional engineers, geologists, biologists, hydrologists and environmental specialists from a number of state and federal agencies have guided the Red Dog, Ft. Knox, Pogo, Greens Creek, Kensington and other mine projects from concept to development to final production. If a planned mine can't withstand this team's strict scrutiny, it simply doesn't get built.

Any plan that Pebble's operators propose will be subject to an exhaustive environmental review that starts with environmental baseline data, continues through the mine's initial development and productive life, and persists long past closure with provisions for long-term site monitoring and maintenance to protect other natural resources. The permitting process also includes extensive public education and involvement, and final plans invariably incorporate many public suggestions. State officials have already organized and multiple forums about the Pebble project where they explain the permitting process and listen to the concerns of the attendees.

As the operators of the Pebble project gather more information about their deposit, they will undoubtedly continue to refine their plans for how they would propose to develop it. Until they complete those plans and lay them before the state and the public, however, any effort to generate opposition by appealing to emotions rather than facts is simply premature.

While Pebble does create significant challenges for Alaska, it also offers exciting possibilities. I encourage everyone to hold their fire on this issue until a clearer target emerges. We'll be more likely to hit the bulls-eye - and less likely to hurt anybody with a stray round.

• Michael L. Menge is the commissioner of the Department of Natural Resources.



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