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Pebble Partnership copper gold molybdenum mine project Alaska Northern Dynasty NAK NDM

By Sarah Hurst
For Mining News 

Pebble contractors: quality and quantity

Northern Dynasty employed 45 consulting firms last year to conduct baseline studies, is reaching out to the local community

 

Last updated 1/29/2006 at Noon



Northern Dynasty may only be a junior mining company, but it has marshaled an army of contractors to conduct baseline environmental studies for its Pebble project in southwest Alaska. Companies that competed against each other to win the contracts are now working as a team taking samples, monitoring conditions and analyzing data that will eventually be used in the permit applications for the proposed copper-gold mine.

In 2005 the Pebble project employed 45 consulting firms, with a total Alaska workforce of 457, plus another 152 non-Alaskans, according to Northern Dynasty. Of the Alaskans, 112 were from local Bristol Bay communities.

HDR began work in 2004

One of these contractors, HDR, a large architectural, engineering and consulting firm with offices in Anchorage and Juneau, began working for Northern Dynasty in 2004. "We went through the pre-qualification process. They were looking for a variety of disciplines and wanted to know what we were interested in," Mark Dalton, HDR's Alaska operations manager, told Mining News. The company already had local expertise, as it had worked on various projects in the Iliamna-Nondalton area, including designing and permitting a small hydroelectric power plant on the Tazimina River.

HDR also had experience working with the mining industry: it did an environmental impact statement for Red Dog mine in the early eighties and more recently has been involved with Pogo and Donlin Creek and some smaller projects in Southeast Alaska. On the Pebble project Northern Dynasty initially wanted HDR to focus on fish and wetlands issues, with some limited stream biology work that involved sampling streams to find out what lived there. "In 2005 they came back to us and asked if we would take on additional work - water quality and surface water hydrology," Dalton said.

The Northern Dynasty contracts are worth more than $1 million annually to HDR. Out of their Anchorage workforce of 100, around 20 have worked on the Pebble project. HDR takes samples from the mine site and also the planned access road corridor year-round. All kinds of information is collected, from the types of species that are out there, to the chemistry of the water, when there are high flows and low flows, and when break-up takes place. "Northern Dynasty has done a very good job of laying out the logistics and requirements for field crews, and they are terribly sensitive to safety issues," Dalton said. "They provide places for people to live, helicopter support and communications."

SLR using local-hire helpers

Northern Dynasty also makes an effort to recruit local people to assist the various field crews.

Like HDR, SLR is an environmental science and engineering consultancy firm with numerous offices around the country.

SLR has 16 people in its Anchorage office and has been working on the Pebble project for the past year, implementing a ground water program and a program to identify trace elements in the soil and vegetation at the mine site.

In the field, the scientists are usually accompanied by a local-hire helper and a local bear guard.

"We needed people who were very good mechanically," said Scott Rose, SLR's principal geologist.

"Northern Dynasty would find local people or give them the training."

"The bear guards added so much information about subsistence. It's amazing to me how much the locals use the plants," said Karen Cougan, SLR's principal scientist. "This is a new type of work for them. They liked being paid to be outside and look at the vegetation, and scope out for animals." To avoid endangering subsistence resources, the crews working for Northern Dynasty are not allowed to hunt, fish, or eat berries or other plants on the site.

Contractors are also prohibited from using vehicles on the ground, so instead of wheeling a drill rig 10 feet to a new location, it has to be dismantled and transported in 10 to 25 helicopter loads. SLR uses specialized drill rigs to drill wells for the ground water monitoring program. For almost four months last summer the company was drilling 24 hours a day in a 10-mile by 10-mile area. Including some that were drilled previously, there are now some 160 wells on the site, usually about 100 feet deep, which have to be monitored at monthly and quarterly intervals for two years.

"We're really getting to do true science, our life aspirations," Cougan said. "It has enormous benefits for the scientific community, to add to the databases. Getting a government grant for some of this would be much more difficult." The contracts with Northern Dynasty account for about 30 percent of the work of SLR's Anchorage office. Their other main clients are Alyeska Pipeline, ConocoPhillips and BP. Although the company only came to Alaska in 2001, its staff has decades of experience, including working on projects for Fort Knox and Greens Creek mines.

Biologist working on baseline info

Fisheries biologist Jim Buell also worked with Fort Knox last year on a re-evaluation of the mine's wetlands program, which rehabilitates wetlands in the area that were damaged by previous placer mining activities. Buell is based in Portland, Ore., but started working in Alaska in the late 1970s. In 1991-93, when Cominco owned the Pebble claims, Buell began putting together baseline information about fish on the site. Later the company put the project on hold, but after Northern Dynasty took over, Buell was invited to get involved again.

Buell was keen to answer some of the questions that had been raised when he first collected data on Pebble. "There was some very interesting stuff, very puzzling, to do with the distribution of juvenile salmon in the area," Buell told Mining News. "I had trouble understanding why they weren't in certain places. The south fork of the Koktuli River went dry in the summer, and the assemblage of species in the north fork was very rich, there were many kinds of fish, it was very impressive."

Flying over the Pebble site for Northern Dynasty in the winter of 2004, "I saw a lot of open water in certain areas and it all became clear," Buell said. "A lot of the streams are dominated by ground water influence. If you really want to understand this system, you have to go there in winter." Buell is now overseeing all the aquatic and fisheries investigations on the project, which takes about 60 percent of his time. "Northern Dynasty is being very attentive, that was part of the deal," he said. "I wanted to be part of the team in a real sense. Communication back and forth is very important."

Hoefler: air quality baseline work

On the air quality side, the Anchorage-based Hoefler Consulting Group has been collecting baseline data at the Pebble site, primarily by installing meteorological stations that measure conditions such as temperature, wind speed and humidity. The stations consist of 10-meter high towers with instrumentation at the top, which can be read remotely on the computers in the Anchorage office, Brian Hoefler, the firm's president, told Mining News.

"Northern Dynasty is a great set of folks, they understand the nature of the business, and they're working very hard to do the right thing. We've enjoyed working with them," said Hoefler. About 16 people from Hoefler's staff of 25 or so worked on the Pebble project in 2005, devoting 3,000 to 4,000 man-hours to the work, Hoefler said. Hoefler founded his environmental consulting company in 1995 and has been working with the mining industry since 1991, including projects for Teck Cominco at Red Dog, Teck-Pogo and the Mystery Creek mine.

 

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