• Company says final permitting document will be some 6,000 pages
By Sean Pearson
Just four months before it begins the extensive formal permitting process, the Pebble Limited Partnership has begun reducing its impact on the tundra outside Iliamna—at least visually.
The company, comprising Anglo American and Northern Dynasty Minerals, hopes to develop the controversial area near the headwaters of the Bristol Bay Salmon Fisheries into a large-scale copper, gold and molybdenum mine.
“One of the most remarkable things people still find curious about our operation is the fact that we actually package human waste collected at the site, and ship it to Anchorage for disposal,” said Pebble Partnership Vice President of Public Relations Mike Heatwole. “We’re serious about minimizing our footprint out here.”
According to Heatwole, since 2004, Pebble has spent some $120 million on environmental baseline studies.
“We’ve drilled more than 800 holes out there,” Heatwole said, gesturing over the land. “But when we fly over the area in the helicopter, tell me how many of the holes you can actually see.”
No drill holes or scarred areas are visible from above — or at ground level.
“We also have more than 400 groundwater monitoring locations,” he explained. “And most people don’t know that the water quality standard we have to maintain out here is higher than what is required for drinking water for humans. It’s a pretty high standard to meet.”
Heatwole indicated there are 67 major state and federal permits that must be obtained by Pebble before the company can move forward with development of the mine. He noted that hundreds of permits, including minor, more specific ones, will be required by permit’s end.
“We’ve figured out that, by the time we get all the information in for all the different permits for all the different areas, the document will be about 6,000 pages long,” Heatwole said. “The plan is to release it at the end of the year with a 150-page technical summary, and a 30-40 page overall summary.”
Getting down to brass tacks
One of the biggest issues discussed thus far in regard to the practicality of the Pebble Mine is generating enough power for its operation. Heatwole said company estimates so far show the mine would need something to support an annual load of about 250-400 megawatts.
“We’ve looked at linking to Nikiski via submarine cable, but we’re still exploring a variety of ideas,” he said. “Our CEO (John Shively) has said that, if we can bring low-cost power to the mine site, we want to bring it to the entire region.”
Heatwole said Pebble would prefer to use natural gas, but have also looked at wind generation and geothermal options.
“It would really make sense, however, for Pebble to become the industrialized anchor for a state natural gasline,” he said.
Another factor considered imperative to maintaining the pristine quality of the Bristol Bay Watershed is the use of cyanide to extract minerals such as gold and copper from other minerals in the rock.
Jim Lang, senior vice president of geology for Hunter Dickinson, said cyanide is one method of extraction, but not the only way.
“If that winds up being the means necessary for extraction, it would be processed within a closed system,” he explained. “There would be no infiltration to outside water systems.”
Lang called Pebble’s find outside Iliamna a “globally significant discovery.”
“People seem to think that this is primarily a gold mine, but it’s always been about the copper,” he said.
In response to ongoing boycotts of Pebble-produced gold from mega jewelers like Zales and Tiffany, Lang said it is virtually impossible to detect where a certain “portion” of gold came from.
“The way this stuff is extracted and separated and smelted, there’s just no way to really track it,” he explained. “It’s not like being able to tell whether diamonds came from South Africa or Brazil. Gold can’t provide those ‘specific’ signatures.”
Heatwole echoed Lang, adding that he finds it interesting the number of people opposed to the Pebble Prospect who don’t realize how many different minerals are needed to produce alternative energy resources.
“A 5 megawatt wind turbine contains nearly five tons of copper, and solar panels are 60 percent copper,” he said. “Your hybrid carries 78 pounds of copper, while conventional cars only have 42 pounds. There’s a lot more homework out there for people to do.”
According to Heatwole, Pebble will continue its public affairs work throughout the rest of the year, with company representatives visiting communities in order explain the project and its potential.
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