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. has been posting summaries and news items along the way, and offers this year in review:

Changing 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