Spring is nearly here, and along with it more daylight and plenty to report. Those with an interest – for and against – in the proposed Pebble mine have experienced lots of twists and turns.
The latest twist came in late January, when the EPA announced it will put a on hold its previous plan to do away with an Obama-era proposal to restrict certain mining activities at the Pebble deposit. The same announcement said the agency also will continue to consider the developer’s permit application.
“… Any mining projects in the region likely pose a risk to the abundant natural resources that exist there,” EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt said in a January 26 statement. “Until we know the full extent of that risk, those natural resources and world-class fisheries deserve the utmost protection.”
Reporter Daysha Eaton, whose story was featured on National Public Radio, offers a nice roundup of news from the past year.
Bottom line: Restrictions proposed in 2014 under the Clean Water Act are in limbo – for now. In accordance with a legal settlement with developers, EPA cannot move forward with the proposed restrictions until at least 2021,or until the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers issues its final environmental impact statement, whichever comes first. Meanwhile, the agency will work to gather more information on the potential impacts that a mine would have in the area. EPA also plans to request more public comment on its proposed determination now that a specific mine plan and permit application have been submitted.
First Quantum joins the project – kind of
As reported before, just prior to Christmas, First Quantum Minerals, a Canadian-based company that operates seven mines and a copper smelter, announced its intent to invest $150 million over the next four years in a new framework agreement with Northern Dynasty. According to the press release announcing the partnership, the funds will be “applied solely for the purpose of progressing the permitting of the Pebble Project.” First Quantum also holds the option to pay an additional $1.35 billion to become a 50 percent owner, along with Northern Dynasty.
“The Option Agreement is an important opportunity to carry out a detailed assessment of the Pebble Project which is widely acknowledged to be one of the outstanding unmined copper projects in the world,” said Philip Pascall, First Quantum’s chairman and CEO.
A final agreement between the two is expected to be signed in the second quarter of this year, pending acquisition of certain regulatory approvals and other due diligence.
KDLG’s Dave Bendinger had the reactions.
Consider the order of the events: 1) EPA agrees to start the process of withdrawing proposed restrictions on certain mining operations at the Pebble deposit 2) First Quantum framework announcement. 3) EPA said it suspend the withdrawal process and keep the proposed restrictions for now (see details above).
Next question: Will EPA’s latest decision to keep proposed restrictions on the table and further investigate the potential effects impact the Northern Dynasty/First Quantum agreement?
Bonus question: Will First Quantum’s unsuccessful bid to halt a $1.4 billion lawsuit draw resources away from this new venture?
Pebble permitting a reality
The framework agreement with First Quantum gave developers the funds needed to begin the long permitting process. The Pebble Partnership submitted permit application documents to the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers in December, meeting its goal to get into permitting by the end of 2017. Some notable changes to the project, according to the application, include (Tab 23 of the application):
· The new plan limits the mining to the near-surface minerals only. This would reduce the footprint of the pit, tailings storage facility and the waste rock storage.
· The layout is redesigned to keep the majority of the infrastructure in the North Fork Koktuli drainage, avoiding waste rock and tailings storage in the Upper Talarik Creek drainage.
· Changes to the transportation corridor and power generation plans that aim to reduce the environmental impacts.
· Changes to the tailings storage plans that aims to minimize water quality impacts, and “avoids the need for post-closure management of a PAG (potentially acid generating) waste rock storage facility.”
Also notable: the Corps of Engineers selected AECOM to help with the Pebble project’s environmental impact statement, according to North of 60 Mining News. Completing the EIS is a big step in the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) requirements that could eventually lead to permit approvals.
AECOM is a large engineering, environmental, construction and infrastructure development firm, with much experience providing NEPA compliance and other regulatory support services related to large-scale mining. The Corps has plans for public scoping meetings and comment periods to be held this spring. A draft EIS is expected in 2019.
Geek out! Links to all the permitting docs.
New mineral estimate determined
Last week Northern Dynasty Minerals released a new estimate of the amount of mineral resource at the Pebble deposit. The minor increase is due to a change in how the estimates are processed. The current numbers are 6.456 billion tons of measured and indicated resource, and 4.454 billion tons of inferred resource. The 191-page technical report detailing the changes, and much more, is available at www.sedar.com.
Speedy delivery? Trump proposes big NEPA changes, fast regulatory reviews
The Trump Administration in February released a $1.5 trillion infrastructure proposal. In it, the administration suggests big changes to the permitting process for big projects. The plan wants a single federal agency to lead the process, and seeks to require that the process be completed within two years. That would mean environmental reviews under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) must be done in 21 months, and the states would have three months to make their decisions. The plan also calls for the elimination of EPA’s authority under 404(c) of the Clean Water Act. If passed, it would no longer have power to veto U.S. Army Corps of Engineers wetlands permits. (This is the process EPA was implementing in Bristol Bay, and which is on currently on hold.)
It will take an act of congress for the infrastructure proposal to pass, and it’s unclear if the president would garner enough support. Congress streamlined the permitting processes in 2012 and again in 2015 in transportation bills.
Read all about the political ins and outs in this story from Dean Scott and Alan Kovski of Bloomberg.
Washington Post ad features concerns of former EPA Administrators
In mid-December, three former EPA administrators – all of whom served under Republican presidents – came out against the mine in a full-page ad in the Washington Post. Devin Henry of The Hill wrote about the ad, which was sponsored by Pebble opponents, including the National Resource Defense Council, Trout Unlimited, United Tribes for Bristol Bay, among others.
The three administrators were William Ruckelshaus (who served under Presidents Nixon and Reagan), William Reilly (George H.W. Bush) and Christine Todd Whitman (George W. Bush). Bruce Babbitt, an Interior Secretary under President Bill Clinton, also signed onto the opposition.
“The choice is simple,” they wrote in the advertisement. “Protect the greatest salmon fishery on the planet. Protect Alaskans and the Bristol Bay watershed.”
Amy Armstrong at The Anchorage Press laid out the agenda and the politics for the upcoming Salmonfest, the renowned festival held in Ninilchick that celebrates the illustrious Alaska salmon. The story is headlined “Salmonfest in a Time of Trump.”
Salmonfest is scheduled for Aug. 3-5 at the Kenai Peninsula Fairgrounds.