Alaska editorial: Has Northern Dynasty broken promises?

Posted: Friday, August 18, 2006

This editorial first appeared in the Anchorage Daily News:

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Critics of the proposed Pebble mine are assailing the credibility of the company pushing the project, Northern Dynasty. In response, the company says the seeming contradictions in some of its public statements can be explained - if you know the whole story.

As the two sides blast each other, there's a lesson for Alaskans. When it comes to Northern Dynasty's promises about the project, you have to read the fine print.

The rhetorical sparring broke out when Northern Dynasty filed for water rights to Upper Talarik Creek. The move appeared to contradict earlier pledges.

A 2004 Daily News article quoted Northern Dynasty chief operating office Bruce Jenkins: "I said leave Upper Talarik Creek alone." A 2005 article in the Kenai Peninsula Clarion quoted the project's environmental manager: "We made a commitment to stay out of the Upper Talarik Creek because it is sensitive fish habitat."

If that's true, why did the company file for water rights to the creek?

All along, "leave alone" and "stay out" meant the company wouldn't put its tailings pond in the watershed, according to Mr. Jenkins. The company has drilled test holes in the watershed the past four years, he says, and for the past year and a half its plans have shown a road and transmission lines, even part of the mine pit, in the Upper Talarik area.

"We are not staying out of Upper Talarik Creek entirely," Mr. Jenkins says, but the other proposed facilities are in only a "tiny portion" of the drainage.

Then there's the matter of using cyanide to enhance mineral recovery. That possibility worries Pebble's critics, since cyanide has created big contamination issues at other mines around the world.

Mr. Jenkins said no cyanide would be used at the mine, according to a Daily News article in 2004. Critics charge the company is reneging on that promise.

Not so, says Mr. Jenkins. According to Mr. Jenkins, "We've consistently said in the last year and a half, one of the alternatives is to use cyanide in an in-mill, closed-circuit system."

The company and critics have a similar dispute over whether Northern Dynasty ever said there were no fish in the lake it might use for its tailings pond. "Of course there are fish there," Mr. Jenkins says. The quote in question, he says, was taken out of context. He was talking about salmon and was saying the lake is not critical salmon habitat.

There's a pattern here that concerns critics. They wonder if they can rely on what Northern Dynasty says.

Alaskans should take a close look at the fine print. So far, Pebble looks like an environmentally disruptive project that doesn't belong in the state's most productive wild-salmon watershed. The seeming contradictions in Northern Dynasty's pledges, and the company's clarifications, do not help dispel Alaskans' concerns.

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