30 December 2013

Pebble Watch 2013 Year in Review

From legislative efforts to streamline Alaska's permitting process, to a visit from EPA's new chief, to dramatic changes in Pebble investors, 2013 was full of developments related to the proposed Pebble mine. One thing that stayed the same? Still no mine plan. PebbleWatch.com has been posting summaries and news items along the way, and offers this year in review:

calendarofeventssmChanging partners
For those tracking the development of the proposed Pebble mine, the biggest news in 2013 was Anglo American's withdrawal, which left the Pebble Limited Partnership with just one partner: Northern Dynasty Minerals.

Northern Dynasty has forged ahead giving assurances that it can enter the permitting phase on its own. However, it is still looking for another major investor.

That search may be a little harder now that Rio Tinto, another large London-based mining company, has announced it’s considering selling off the Northern Dynasty shares it owns (totaling around 19% of NDM stock). In 2006, NDM CEO Ron Thiessen said Rio Tinto's investment provided a “Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval” to the project. If Rio Tinto divests, what message does that send potential investors?

The mine plan – still elusive

For years, developers have urged the public to hold off judging the project until there is a completed mine plan. The wait – and the changing timelines announced by the Pebble Partnership – have had a detrimental effect on the people of Bristol Bay, said Senator Lisa Murkowski. She made news with her July letter to NDM, Anglo American and PLP, chiding that the repeated delays had left communities frustrated, anxious and confused, and asking developers to set and stick to a timeline for a project plan and permit applications.

Up until Anglo American’s mid-September announcement, a mine plan had been expected by the end of 2013. But recent developments have further delayed its release.

As recently as November, Northern Dynasty CEO Ron Thiessen told the Resource Development Council at its annual meeting that the mine plan and paperwork would be complete in early 2014, and a decision on whether to go to permitting would be made by the NDM Board of Directors sometime in 2014.

EPA Watershed Assessment

Another highly-anticipated document is the final EPA Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment, originally due in 2013, after the second draft was released in April, followed by public comments (Read Pebble Watch's summary). Delayed by the government furlough, the final is now expected in early 2014.

The second-draft of the assessment states that large-scale mining would be detrimental to the people, fish and wildlife in Bristol Bay. While hundreds of thousands of commenters wrote in support of the assessment, EPA was called to task in hearings by the U.S. House of Representatives subcommittees on Oversight and Natural Resources. Alaska Department of Natural Resources deputy commissioner Ed Fogels testified that EPA’s watershed assessment had “increased uncertainty in the regulatory framework for mining.”

However, publication of the assessment does not itself lead to any restrictions in development. The agency has been careful to say that the assessment will “inform” its decision to use its authority under the Clean Water Act to limit development, and has stated that any future 404(c) action would go through a separate public process.

New EPA Leadership Visits Bristol Bay

In July, Gina McCarthy won Senate confirmation to head up EPA, and in August, she underscored the importance EPA places on its role in Alaska by heading north for a visit. One of her first trips after being named Chief Administrator was to tour the state and talk with residents, including those in Bristol Bay.

Streamlining permitting

In January 2013, Alaska Governor Sean Parnell launched an effort to "streamline" the state’s permitting process via bills in the House and Senate. The bills come as a result of state agencies, particularly the Department of Natural Resources, recommending changes to specific statutes:

  • House Bill 77, related to water reservations and right to appeal, did not pass, but will be considered by the Senate in January 2014. Some legislators and several organizations are speaking out against the bill, however, and recent public meetings have been packed with people raising concerns about how the legislation would affect their ability to give input in the future.
  • Senate Bill 27 did pass, making the first step toward ceding control of the "404 program" from federal agencies such as EPA and the US Army Corps of Engineers to the state’s Departments of Environmental Conservation and Natural Resources. The Regulation of Dredge and Fill Activities Act (SB27), which  passed into law June 24, gives the state authority and funds to pursue an application to EPA that would authorize a state-run program replacing the federal permitting process for any projects requiring a dredge and fill permit under section 404 of the Clean Water Act. Savvy readers will recall that currently the 404 permit “triggers” the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) process and an Environmental Impact Statement. If Alaska assumes wetlands primacy, any 404 permits it issues would not trigger NEPA review, the state has said. Full implementation of this program, however, may require further changes to state statutes--in which case, the public would have an opportunity to give input. More info from the Department of Environmental Conservation.

More legislative highlights

  • Bristol Bay Area Plan – A legal finding forced the Department of Natural Resources to revise sections of its 2005 Bristol Bay Area Plan in 2013. Revisions included the reclassification of millions of acres of state lands as wildlife habitat. This issue was closely watched, as the plan classifies land for specific uses, including wildlife habitat, recreation and resource management.
  • Iliamna Lake harbor seal status – In response to a November 2012 appeal from the Center for Biological Diversity, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries began the process of studying harbor seals in Iliamna Lake and whether they should be given protected status. NOAA expects to complete the status review in early 2014. 
  • Bristol Bay Forever – This public initiative, to require legislative approval for large-scale mining operations in the Bristol Bay Fisheries Reserve, will be on the August 2014 ballot. Initiative sponsors collected 30,210 signatures, just 41 over the minimum needed.

Scientists also get an 'incomplete'

Over the last several years, PLP has invested heavily in the science of Bristol Bay, preparing an in-depth Environmental Baseline Document that represents a wealth of data on the area. In 2013, PLP CEO John Shively said that even if the proposed project does not go through, this scientific data will be released to the public. “We’re proud of the data,” said Shively. “We think it stands up.”

How the data actually stands up is still uncertain, however, since the third-party review PLP had commissioned with the Keystone Center remains unfinished. Scientists unaffiliated with the project volunteered their time to review and comment, and several participated in panels in 2012 and 2013. Videos of those panels are available online, but a written report summarizing scientists’ suggestions was still in progress this fall, when Anglo American announced its plans to withdraw from the project.

Funding to complete this report is now in question; a final panel, which would have focused on the mine plan itself, is not going to happen, said Shively.

For now, according to an NDM press release, the company plans to consolidate all the technical data, along with engineering work and permitting documentation, into a “data room,” hoping it will help attract a new investor in 2014.

Pebble Watch

Pebble Watch continues to bring readers regular coverage of events related to the development of the mine, including in-depth stories you will not find anywhere else. In just over two years, we’ve reached a milestone of 10,000 “Likes” on Facebook, and have been acknowledged by agencies and developers for our commitment to maintain an impartial, fact-based approach. Other 2013 highlights included the release of our new "communicating science" presentation at the national conference of the American Indian Science and Engineering Society in Denver and the release of our "Pebble Watch guidebook," which combines our best material from the past two years in one handy reference. Find the Pebble Watch guidebook (and other publications) online or request print copies at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

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23 December 2013

Will Rio Tinto divest from Northern Dynasty Minerals?

London-based mining company Rio Tinto announced today that its 19% investment in Northern Dynasty Minerals Ltd. (NDM) is under review, and that it may divest. Just a week ago, Anglo American completed its own withdrawal from the Pebble Limited Partnership PLC, leaving the Canadian-based NDM as sole owner of the Pebble prospect.

Rio Tinto has been invested in the Pebble project through the shares it owns in NDM. However, it has been under pressure lately to divest, due to what Rio Tinto shareholders are calling "significant risks" posed by the Pebble project. In November, chief financial officers of two major pension funds in California and New York had urged Rio Tinto to pull out of NDM, citing risks including the potential for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to halt the project, and opposition from Alaska Native tribes and other groups.

According to news reports, NDM CEO Ron Thiessen told its shareholders this morning that he was completely surprised by Rio Tinto's decision.

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Press release from Rio Tinto

Pension funds urge Rio Tinto to cut and run from Pebble

Rio Tinto Reviews Alaska Pebble Mine Investment: Northern Dynasty Caught by Surprise

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16 December 2013

HB77 discussion reveals high level of public distrust

french crowdsmMore than 200 packed an Alaska Experience Theatre meeting room in Anchorage earlier this month for a discussion of House Bill 77, a piece of legislation Governor Parnell has said "reforms and streamlines" the permitting process. Not everyone sees it that way. Detractors have nicknamed the bill the "Silencing Alaskans Act,"voicing concerns that it would actually result in projects being pushed through without public input. Agency representatives from the State of Alaska Department of Natural Resources (DNR)responded to concerns by describing some issues that the legislation seeks to correct, and said that silencing Alaskans was not their intent. For a rundown of the topics raised, links to relevant resources  and other related facts, please see the Pebble Watch summary that follows.

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13 December 2013

Anglo American officially out

Northern Dynasty Minerals (NDM) announced today that its partnership with mining giant Anglo American is officially over, with NDM reacquiring 100% of the Pebble prospect.

With Anglo and its funding out, NDM is hoping to find a new investor next year. In preparation, the company is working on a "data room" to consolidate all the "technical data, engineering work and permitting documentation related to Pebble." NDM is also working on final permitting paperwork and expects it will be ready to go in the first quarter of 2014. Northern Dynasty reports that its Board of Directors will make a final decision on filing the permit in 2014.

NDM CEO Ron Thiessen has recently stated that a potential investor must have the following characteristics:

  • financial resources
  • technical capabilities
  • experience operating in the United States
  • commitment to environmental stewardship and working in partnership with communities
  • a shared vision to develop the Pebble resource in full partnership with Alaska Native corporations and communities.
NDM has also stated that it is prepared to go into the permitting stage on its own if it does not attract a qualified investor.

Read the full release from Northern Dynasty Minerals.

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10 December 2013

Pebble Watch "covers" a hit at VLW


PWCoverVLW-adelheidThe Pebble Watch team attended Bristol Bay Native Corporation's Village Leadership Workshop (VLW) last week, providing information about Pebble Watch publications and resources, and highlighting Pebble Watch's Facebook page, which has nearly reached 10,000 "Likes."

Pebble Watch conducted a drawing for prizes geared toward young scientists, including a microscope and a water quality testing kit. We also created custom digital Pebble Watch magazine covers featuring attendees such as Lucy Andrews and Adelheid Frost, pictured here.

Several VLW participants had fun posing in front of our "green screen," with their custom cover produced on the spot. Did someone you know participate? You might see it posted on Facebook.

We asked attendees to take home this message: Pebble Watch is here for everybody in the region, no matter what "side" you are on. We offer fact-based information, not opinions, and we are here to help keep you informed about activities, schedules and science related to the potential development of the Pebble prospect.

See another example of a customized cover on our Pebble Watch Facebook page, and "Like" us while you're there.

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22 November 2013

Remaining partner outlines investor requirements, states Pebble case at resource conference

Northern Dynasty Minerals (NDM) President Ron Thiessen told attendees of the Alaska Resource Development Council (RDC) conference that the Canadian mining company is actively looking for a new investor in the Pebble project now that Anglo American has withdrawn.

No decisions will be made on timing for going to permitting until that investor is identified, said Thiessen. He noted that the permitting paperwork is 90% complete and that "we'll be ready to go." He also outlined characteristics that a new investor must have, including:

  • financial resources
  • technical capabilities
  • experience operating in the United States
  • commitment to environmental stewardship and working in partnership with communities
  • a shared vision to develop the Pebble resource in full partnership with Alaska Native corporations and communities

Earlier in the day, Pebble Limited Partnership (PLP) CEO John Shively had presented his case for how the Pebble project could benefit the people of Bristol Bay, saying that he was initially interested in working for PLP because of his desire to help create jobs in Alaska.

News article from Alaska Dispatch on Thiessen's presentation. 

Links to speaker presentations from the entire RDC conference.

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18 November 2013

In the news: November 18, 2013

Recent news related to the proposed Pebble mine:

Bristol Bay initiative likely to make it to ballots (TheRepublic.com)

The Associated Press reports that the "Bristol Bay Forever" initiative, which would require legislative approval for large-scale mining projects such as the proposed Pebble mine, appears to have enough signatures to be placed on the ballot next year for a public vote. The Division of Elections expects to certify the proposal in mid-December.

Read the story.

DNR calls off public meetings for permitting bill (alaskapublic.org)
Alaska's Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has determined that it's not feasible to hold public meetings to discuss House Bill 77, the controversial legislation that is designed to streamline permitting in regards to water rights. This story from Alaska Public Media describes the issue and quotes DNR deputy commissioner Ed Fogels as saying that the agency is willing to discuss the legislation with anyone who has questions about it, and will also meet with individual stakeholder groups.  

Read the story.

Read HB77.

Utah mine becomes debating point in Alaskan environmental fight (KSL Broadcasting, Salt Lake City, Utah)
Reporter John Hollenhorst traveled from Utah to Alaska to develop this story about the proposed Pebble mine. He includes footage from the recent Alaska Native Professional Association (ANPA) meeting that Pebble Watch covered, as well as comments from Pebble project proponents and opponents. Utah's Bingham Canyon Mine, also called Kennecott Copper Mine, is one of the largest open-pit copper mines in the world. It is owned by Rio Tinto, which is also partly invested in the Pebble project. 

Read the story/watch the video.

Dena'ina cultural studies (APRN)
KSKA's Addressing Alaskans program recently featured two stories related to the culture of the Dena'ina peoples of Southcentral Alaska. "The Importance of Salmon for the Dena'ina," a presentation by Dr. Alan Boraas focuses on the cultural traditions of the Dena'ina people related to salmon. "Dena'ina Songs," presented by Craig Coray, highlights songs his father recorded in 1954 in Nondalton. Boraas co-authored the EPA Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment’s “Report on Traditional Ecological Knowledge and Cultural Characterization of the Nushagak and Kvichak Watersheds, Alaska.”

Listen to "The Importance of Salmon for the Dena'ina."

Listen to Dena'ina Songs.

Young Bad River Documentary featured at Big Water Film Festival (UpNorth Explorer)

A potential mine in Indian country has become “the source of much impassioned debate between those who argue for economic development and more jobs, and those who speak of environmental and social consequences a mine may bring." Sound familiar? It’s not Pebble. Three teens from the Bad River Tribe in Wisconsin have produced a film to speak about the potential impact of the taconite mine proposed for the Penokee Hills of Ashland and Iron counties, Wisconsin.

Read about the student project.

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Pebble Watch presents at AISES conference

Andria-AISES2013A Pebble Watch-based interactive presentation on communicating science premiered Nov. 2 in Denver to a group of Native American scientists, students and educators attending the American Indian Science and Engineering Society (AISES) annual conference this year.

Andria Agli, Vice President, Shareholder and Corporate Relations for Bristol Bay Native Corporation (BBNC), presented the talk, "Communicating Science Across Cultures: Lessons learned by the Alaska Native educational program Pebble Watch," accompanied by a PowerPoint and group activities. The session sparked questions about Pebble as well as conversation about how scientists can best communicate science across barriers including age, class, cultures, educational levels, and fields of specialty.

"Even if you're not in communications, it's likely that helping communicate your work to the public will be a part of your job as a scientist," Agli said.

jargonsheets1After an introduction to Pebble Watch, attendees split into small groups and attacked the first activity: listing out examples of "jargon," or words that were everyday language to them but would need to be explained to others. Among the numerous examples the group came up with and posted at the front of the room were: portals, websites, "young of year," riparian, sonomicrometry, hydrological analyses, palynology, sustainability, pipeline and "selfies."

In another exercise, participants read examples of writing about Pebble to guess who had written them: developers, a state or federal agency, or environmental groups. Many were surprised that the answers were not obvious, and had to do more with subtle changes in focus than with obvious word choices.

For example, two of the statements accurately described the amount of copper versus rock thought to be present at the Pebble deposit. But where the statement from potential developers focused on the 1% of the deposit that would be recovered as copper, the statement from environmentalists focused on the 99% likely to be discarded as waste rock or tailings.

Agli explained how BBNC continues to support PebbleWatch taking an objective and largely independent approach to its coverage, even while the Board has taken a stance against the Pebble project. She also encouraged scientists and educators in the room to be advocates for clear communication of science in both their Native communities as well as among their scientific peers. "You can be a link between western and traditional science," she said.

AISES' 3-day conferences have been held annually since 1978, bringing together high school juniors and seniors, college students, graduate students, teachers, science professionals and corporate representatives from the sciences to offer opportunities for networking, fellowship and learning—encompassing the ways of western science as well as indigenous/elder wisdom.

BBNC also attended the event for recruiting purposes. For more about AISES, see the society's website.


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28 October 2013

Outreach likely to downsize with loss of PLP partner


PLP CEO John Shively speaks with media after an October panel discussion about the proposed Pebble mine.

Even without Anglo American's financial backing, Pebble Limited Partnership has said that its proposed Pebble mine project will move forward. But without additional backers, the plan's information rollout – once envisioned as multi-pronged stakeholder educational effort – likely will be scaled down. At a recent Alaska Native Professional Association panel in Anchorage, we asked PLP CEO John Shively and PLP spokesman Mike Heatwole about how the company would set outreach priorities in light of the withdrawal.

PLP is currently assessing what activities can continue and what cannot, said Shively. Setting these priorities would not occur until November, after Anglo American transitions out of the partnership, he said. For now, almost all contractors have been sent "stop orders," and asked to report to PLP on progress to date. 

With Anglo American's participation, PLP had reported a budget of about $80 million for 2013. "We do know that there will be considerably less funding than there has been in the past," Shively said. "We will move the project along. There are things we can do to continue to try to educate the public on what kind of project it is. I hope that some point in the near future we will have a description of the project we can take to the public."

A proposed Keystone panel on the mine plan is one part of the outreach that would not occur, Shively said. PLP was still awaiting Keystone's report on the two sessions from October 2012 and May 2013, he said. Keystone confirmed receipt of a temporary "stop order," and said a report was in progress. The nonprofit group was unaware of any final decision having been made about its involvement.

Prior to Anglo American's announcement in September, PLP's Heatwole had told Pebble Watch about some of the company's initial ideas for ensuring that stakeholders would be able to access and understand the mine plan. Following are some of the elements that Heatwole described. At this time, however, it is unclear which, if any, of these communication efforts will remain in place after the transition period at PLP is complete.

PLP Website: Primary means of transmitting information on the project.

Mine plan "light": Staff members had been working on explaining the complicated terminology and concepts of the mine plan in layman's terms, and had considered producing multiple versions of the plan: an in-depth version and a "lighter" version that would provide an overview.

In-region meetings on mine plan: PLP was planning to take the plan to communities and get feedback before permitting.

Yup'ik translators.

As we learn more, Pebble Watch will continue to post updates to help our readers access and understand information about the proposed mine.

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17 October 2013

ANPA meeting provides forum for Pebble questions

anpa1For the first time since news broke that major Pebble investor Anglo American had stepped away from the development project, members of the public had the opportunity last week to hear from Pebble Limited Partnership (PLP) CEO John Shively and ask questions about the future of the project.

Shively was one of four panelists who participated in "Pebble: A Conversation Worth Having.” More than 70 people attended the event, hosted by the Alaska Native Professional Association at Alaska Pacific University's Grant Hall Theatre on Wednesday. Additional participants included Bristol Bay Native Corporation Vice President of Land and Regional Operations Tiel Smith, Alaska Miners Association Executive Director Deantha Crockett, and Nunamta Aulukestai Executive Director Kimberly Williams.

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