Q & A with Alaska’s Large Mine Project Coordinator

In the January 2013 issue of the Pebble Watch newsletter, we focus on permitting for the proposed Pebble Mine. We interviewed Sharmon Stambaugh, Large Mine Project Coordinator in the Office of Project Management and Permitting (OPMP), Alaska Department of Natural Resources (DNR). The following is an extended Q & A with Sharmon about how large mine permitting works in Alaska.

In the “Permitting Large Mines in Alaska guide on your website, “Pre-scoping/schedule” is the first step in the process. Give us an idea of your involvement in this step for Pebble project. Has Pebble worked closely with you on these issues so far?


The state was involved early in the proposed project with review of the environmental baseline data (EBD) collection methods and met with Northern Dynasty and its consultants in the 2006 timeframe. Since PLP (Pebble Limited Partnership) became the lead on the project, they have taken a step back as they conducted additional exploration on the East side of the project and gathered more data at the site. Our pre-scoping with them has largely been through attending their annual environmental baseline data review. Because the formal permitting process has not yet begun, we have not done a formal review of that data. The 2004 – 2008 data in the EBD and subsequently collected and quality assured data will be reviewed for support of specific permit applications and during EIS (Environmental Impact Statement) development. The state will be involved with scoping for the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process. The lead federal agency, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, has not set a schedule as there is no mine plan of operations or Army Corps permit application before them. We do not have enough information yet on the project to begin pre-application meetings on specific state permits.

There are 13 large mines or large mine projects listed on your web site. How many project managers are there to guide the process for these mines? Do you have enough staff?

The Office of Project Management and Permitting (OPMP) has four project managers working on large mining projects, and additional support from a DNR (Alaska Department of Natural Resources) coal program manager on the Chuitna Coal project. One of the mines listed on the website, Rock Creek, is in reclamation and closure and not currently coordinated by OPMP. Tulsequah Chief is a Canadian project and our coordination is informational since the project could affect U.S. waters.

Donlin has just begun NEPA scoping this month and a mine project plan has been released and is available on their website. Pebble and Livengood projects are in pre-permitting stage. None of these projects have an approved mine plan or applications for permits, nor have they completed the NEPA process, so the role of an OPMP coordinator is limited at this time. The Niblack project is in advanced exploration. The Bokan Mountain project (not listed on the website) is in early exploration.

There are five operating mines – Red Dog, Greens Creek, Pogo, Fort Knox, Kensington and Nixon Fork. True North mine is coordinated with Fort Knox since the same company is developing and operating those projects. OPMP coordinates the reviews and state permit processes at operating mines as well as developing ones.

The OPMP coordinators work closely with the state agency scientists, permitters and engineers on these projects. To understand our coordination role, you have to consider that each project has a team assembled with staff from the reviewing agencies. The OPMP coordinator is the project point of contact for the state and works to coordinate the involvement of the state agencies, but OPMP does not issue any permits or authorizations and has no control over the permitting decisions by the agencies.

With a controversial project like the Pebble mine, how can you gain the public’s trust that the state is doing due diligence to ensure the process is open and fair?

Given the controversial nature of this project, we expect that all or most state permits, leases and/or authorizations for Pebble will undergo an exhaustive public review process.

To keep the public informed, we maintain a project website with inspection reports from the Pebble exploration site, and other new data that is available about the project.

During the exploration stages, a public comment period is typically not required under state law. However, given the high level of public interest, we are providing courtesy notices of exploration permit applications. We also respond to inquiries we receive from people who are concerned about or interested in the project – our goal is to be open and responsive to anyone who has a question. We can’t answer all questions about Pebble at this time, because we haven’t seen a mine plan yet, and we need to be clear about that, too.

We have been attending other review efforts on the project, such as EPA’s draft Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment and the Keystone Center meetings to hear public input prior to our own review of permit applications.

The state will be involved with a federal NEPA action likely as a formal cooperating agency. Once permit applications are in, the state agencies have public meetings and set comment periods to get feedback on the projects. We will encourage the public to provide input on any proposed permit applications.

As far as gaining trust, we try to educate the public on mining permitting, in general, and how the state approaches it. All of the work we do on other projects in the state, and the issues we discover working with stakeholders, informs how we will approach the Pebble project review. This project has had ramped up oversight from state staff (inspections, requests for water management plans) on just the exploration side and we know that will continue.

How much does permitting cost? Does the applicant carry the entire burden or does the state incur costs? How does it work to have the permitting applicant fund positions at the state level related to permitting?

Permitting costs vary by the location and complexity of a project. Each fiscal year the project coordinator estimates how much time agency professional staff will need to review a project and draft permits and a funding agreement is executed with the project applicant. Agencies are able to recover most of their costs through this process and are thereby able to hire and retain additional staff dedicated to large mine review. These projects require review by specialized engineers, scientific and permitting staff. The staff track their time spent on mining project review for reimbursement. No employees receive any compensation directly from applicants, nor do they receive any consideration beyond ordinary salaries and benefits. If necessary, funding through MOUs (memorandums of understanding) with the applicants and operators can fund consultant review if third-party expertise is needed.

Pebble’s EBD is 27,000 pages long. Its mine plan will also probably be robust and technical. How does the permitting process allow members of the public to best understand the technical information in order to comment effectively?

The EBD is an atypical effort by a company to get environmental data out to the public well ahead of any NEPA action. Not all company data is necessarily included in the NEPA document, but would be available upon request. The NEPA document, almost certainly an EIS would be the public’s starting point for reviewing highly technical data for a project, since under NEPA there are provisions for public data review. If Pebble advances to permitting, the key state permits have opportunities for public review and comment. To help the public digest the technical information and to facilitate comment, agencies typically release draft permits for public review along with a fact sheet or other background review materials.

Numerous public meetings would need to be held during the NEPA scoping process and the public would have opportunity to express its concerns and informational requests at that time. NEPA further requires that a draft EIS be circulated for public review and comment and the state anticipates that the lead federal agency would hold additional public meetings would be required at that time.

Can you give any details about what a mine plan/initial permit may look like so the public can get an understanding of its components ahead of time? Are there existing plans or permits for other mines that would be good examples to reference?

The Pogo Mine is on state land and may be the best analog to understand the state’s potential involvement at Pebble. For that project, state approvals for access roads, rights of way, millsite leases and other development activities were needed. (See permitting information on this project).  

For a sense of how the Army Corps of Engineers is currently approaching the NEPA process on a proposed mine in Alaska, visit the COE site.

DNR also issues dam safety approvals and water use authorizations, among many other requirements. Other major permits include water discharge permits, air and waste management permits issued by the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game issues habitat permits.

Some people have commented that Alaska’s permitting standards are among the most stringent in the nation/world. Can you provide some kind of documentation on this for our readers if that is indeed the case?

Water quality standards, because state waters are protected for all uses, are typically more stringent in Alaska than other areas in the U.S. This is because of the pristine nature of our environment in contrast to the more developed and urbanized states, our waters still support aquatic life and projects must be built to protect these aquatic resources.

The state builds in requirements for environmental audits every five years by third-party experts who review the performance of the operator and that state agencies. Results of the audits, including review of the financial assurances for the project, are then incorporated into new permits that are required for continued operation of the project. To our knowledge, these environmental audits are not generally standard requirements in other jurisdictions. (For how Alaska ranks with other jurisdictions on mining policies, see the Fraser report.

Other groups contend that the state of Alaska has never denied permits to a large mine. Is that technically true? What is your response to that statement?

There are many different individual permits that are required. It’s important to understand that the state doesn’t own or control the permitting process. Federal agencies also must issue authorizations, and no one agency’s permit trumps any other agency’s permitting requirements.

Permitting is an iterative process. Some projects, or some regulated aspect of them, have been denied permits initially, with the application sent back to the applicant for additional information, analysis or modifications. Several projects the state has reviewed, due to either permitting or financial reasons, were stopped after the NEPA process (the A-J mine in Juneau, for example) or the applicant withdrew the project before permitting was completed.

What’s the most important thing for readers to know regarding the upcoming permitting of the Pebble mine? Does the permitting process give more weight to the comments of those living in the area as opposed to either industry or groups outside Alaska?

The most important thing to know is that the Pebble project has to go through the same permitting scrutiny as any other project, but because of its location in Bristol Bay watersheds, and the massive public interest, the state permitting process will be unprecedented in its scope. The state will require extensive review of data, the mine design and engineering, water quality information and impact mitigation plans before any project is approved. The public expects it and so do the agencies.

Substantive comments about specific aspects of permitting, rather than generalized expressions of support or opposition, are what the agencies are seeking during the permitting process, and they receive the highest level of agency attention. Typically the most technical comments we receive on permits come from the applicant, federal agencies and any NGOs (non-governmental organizations) that have staff scientists. These often are very detailed and provide valuable input to the permitting agencies. In the case of Pebble, we look forward to comments from the many residents who use the area and who have valuable local knowledge. DEC conducts very specific outreach on APDES (Alaska Pollutant Discharge Elimination System) water discharge program permits. This is one of the most important permits for protecting water quality and aquatic life. DEC has a staff person to coordinate outreach, especially with tribes and rural Alaskans.

In the documentary Alaska Gold, Tom Crafford and Ed Fogels of DNR are quoted as saying that if the Pebble Limited Partnership can show that water quality, air and fish and wildlife can be protected, then Pepple is due its permits. How will PLP be able to show that? What role does the public have in the process?

It’s true that if the company is able to show that it meets all state requirements that it becomes difficult for an agency to say no to a project. However, the public has an important role in providing input to the agencies in determining what permit conditions and mitigation requirements are necessary to ensure that water quality, fisheries, wildlife and other environmental criteria are protected. This is a key area for the public to provide substantive input on Pebble and will help determine whether a company is not only meeting the letter of the law with its permit application but if the company’s proposed mitigation measures and the permit conditions are adequate to issue permit approvals.

Monitoring plans for a wide array of environmental parameters (e.g., air quality, water quality, fish, aquatic resources) would be required to measure the performance of a project’s environmental protection measures and to assess compliance with permit conditions. The public will have opportunities to review and comment on these plans.

Also in the Alaska Gold, Tom suggests that DNR can contract out for experts to help in the permitting process. Is the state concerned about finding contractors with no stake in the Pebble project (similar to how the Keystone Center found scientists that knew enough about the topic but had no vested interest)? Who will fund these contractors? Will the state be compensated by PLP for using contractors?

The state can be compensated through an MOU with PLP, but conducts an independent process to find third-party reviewers of a project. Some very technical aspects of mine design, such as prediction and prevention of acid mine drainage, have only a few qualified experts worldwide. In those cases, it may be difficult to find contractors but many work on both government and industry contracts. Contractors are vetted for conflict of interest.

And just to put this all in historical perspective – do you know how long Alaska has been permitting mines – when the first laws were put in place to regulate the industry? 

Permitting and leasing of state land for mining has been around since statehood, but environmental permitting really did not begin until the early 1970s, with the passage of landmark Clean Air and Water Acts, the establishment of EPA, and the new state Department of Environmental Conservation. Laws have evolved with increased understanding of impacts of mining. The advent of modern hard rock mining in Alaska began with the opening of the Red Dog and Greens Creek mines in 1989 and DNR established reclamation regulations in the early 1990s to protect the state in the event that a mining operation defaulted on its obligations and the state needed to stabilize and reclaim the site.