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Pebble mine likely to begin permit process in late 2011

Posted: Friday, September 24, 2010

With its 2010 drilling season set to wrap up in October, the Pebble Limited Partnership is now tentatively eyeing late 2011 to initiate the permit process for the copper and gold mine near Iliamna.

John Shively, CEO of the Pebble partnership, said there is no set timetable to begin the lengthy process, expected to take a minimum of three years and encompass at least 67 major permits and scores of others.

"As I keep telling people, when I took this job in April 2008, I was told we'd be in permitting by the end of the year," he said. "We're not. There's not a date here. It's a complicated project. If you look at it, it's four projects that need to be permitted - the mine, the road, the port and power. Putting all those pieces together just takes time."

The partnership, a 50-50 venture between Vancouver-based Northern Dynasty and London-based Anglo American, still plans to release its environmental baseline study late this year or early in 2011, Shively said.

The environmental study, based on more than six years of intensive data collection on everything from water to wildlife, is expected to have around 53 chapters and more than 10,000 pages.

The partnership plans to condense the study down into a more digestible format for the general public, but even that will be upward of 200 pages.

Other education aids also will be created for the public, Shively said.

"We will try to do a sort of written overview of what all this information means," he said. "We haven't really outlined how we're going to do that, but it is our intent to get something - more than just a written document. It will probably involve a power point presentation, a DVD, a variety of ways to make the information more understandable to the general public."

Earlier this year, Pebble representatives suggested an early 2011 timeframe to begin the permitting process. However, presenting the final plan to more than 30 communities in the region will take time, and the partnership may incorporate some public feedback into plan revisions before initiating the process.

"Once we have a project we think works, we want to take it to communities in the region, so they understand what we're doing and they may have some ideas that make a few changes before we go into permitting," Shively said.

Shively said the partnership will present the final plan to the communities closest to the proposed mine site and others farther from the project but within the Bristol Bay watershed, where opposition to the project is fiercest from those concerned about the potential to pollute the world's largest salmon run.

The National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, will govern the process, and begins when Pebble applies for its first federal permit, likely from the U.S. Corps of Engineers, and will be coordinated by the state Department of Natural Resources. The claim is on state land, and the partnership currently pays nearly $500,000 per year in royalties.

The 2010 drilling season for the Pebble partnership included extensive exploration in the outskirts of the claim. As it ponders the site for a tailings dam and pond, which will hold the waste created by ore extraction, the partnership doesn't want to place the tailings over valuable parts of the deposit.

"The main goal is to better understand the deposit and to do some exploration on parts we hadn't explored before," Shively said. "There are some places that are farther from the main deposit we hadn't drilled before. Trying to understand the geology is important to us."

The process by which the state allows exploratory drilling is set to go to trial in December in Anchorage in a suit by Trustees of Alaska alleging the state Department of Natural Resources violated the state Constitution by issuing temporary water use and land use permits for Pebble. Depositions in that case are now under way.

The state Legislative Council is also working to outline the parameters of a third-party study authorized by the Legislature in the 2010 session. The $750,000 appropriation is intended to provide an independent look at potential impacts from the mine. The study, supported by Pebble opponents who believe it will show the mine is incompatible with the region, was approved by Gov. Sean Parnell over the objections of Pebble, the Resource Development Council and the Alaska Miners Association.

The mining interests said the study unfairly singled out Pebble in the legislative process and duplicates existing state and federal reviews already required under NEPA.

• Andrew Jensen can be reached at andrew.jensen.@alaskajournal.com.



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