North of 60 Mining News - The mining newspaper for Alaska and Canada's North

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

By Shane Lasley
Mining News 

Should Pebble be developed?

Mines permitted under Alaska's stringent process prove responsible mining is possible; worldwide demand for copper grows

 

Last updated 3/30/2008 at Noon



Taking into consideration that the planet's second largest porphyry copper-gold-molybdenum resource is located on a plot of land equal to 0.00076 percent of Alaska's total land mass, is being developed under one of the world's most stringent permitting systems, and could help meet the growing demand for copper worldwide; is it irresponsible and unfair to Alaska and its citizens not to develop the Pebble Project?

The real question begging for an answer is, "Why not Pebble?"

The fact that one of earth's largest porphyry copper-gold-molybdenum deposits is located in a watershed that hosts one of the world's most celebrated salmon runs is creating one of the planet's greatest resource development versus environmental protection debates.

Alaska large-scale mines have a good record

Pebble's primary opponent, The Renewable Resources Coalition, asserts that "toxic by-products are an inevitable result of large open pit mines like the proposed Pebble mine."

This has not proven to be the case for the modern large open-pit mines currently operating in Alaska. All large-scale mines currently in operation in the state can tout environmentally responsible track records. This is a testament not only to the mine operators but also to the state's permitting process.

Alaska's permitting process would require the Pebble Partnership, a 50-50 partnership formed between Anglo American plc and Northern Dynasty Minerals Ltd., to acquire around 50 separate permits to develop a mine at Pebble.

"If a mine is developed at Pebble, it will be the most strictly regulated and closely monitored mine on the planet," Office of Project Management & Permitting Director Ed Fogels told Mining News March 19.

Bristol Bay salmon are the primary expressed concern

The primary concern expressed by the Renewable Resource Coalition and others who oppose a mine at Pebble is the effect the operation might have on the Bristol Bay salmon fishery.

The Red Dog zinc-lead mine in Northwest Alaska and the Fort Knox gold mine in the Interior have two things in common. They are both large open pit mines, and they both have improved the fish habitat in the waterways leaving their operations, according to state regulators.

When it comes to large open-pit mines and water quality, the best example in Alaska is the world's largest zinc mine, the Red Dog Mine.

Before Teck Cominco and its Alaska Native corporation partner NANA Inc. developed the gigantic zinc-lead deposit near Red Dog Creek, the stream was so mineralized from naturally occurring acid-rock drainage that it could not support fish.

One of the state's permit requirements at the mine, and at all large mines in Alaska, is that all water flowing into the project be captured and treated to water quality standards, before being released as outflow. The result of treating water at the Red Dog mine is that fish can thrive in the water flowing out of the mine, and as a result, fish weirs have been installed to prevent the fish now living in the waters from swimming upstream above the mine.

Water must meet 'Aquatic Life Standards'

Water quality has been the central issue in the debate and in proposed legislation surrounding Pebble.

Fogels told Mining News that water discharged from a mine like the proposed Pebble Mine must meet or exceed Aquatic Life Standards, which sets a higher standard for water quality than those of most municipalities.

Water delivered to more than 210,000 Anchorage residents via the public water system contains around 321 parts per billion copper, more than 30 times the 10 ppb that large-scale mines are allowed to discharge to meet Aquatic Life Standards.

One of the critical aspects in achieving and maintaining large-mine permits in Alaska is having an aggressive program to monitor any discharges from the mine as well as keep track of water flow rates and other effects a mine might have on the environment.

Taking into consideration concerns about the Pebble Project, regulators agree that if Pebble is developed into a mine, the monitoring requirements would be the most stringent ever put in place.

Fogels told Mining News that large-scale mine monitoring programs are designed to detect the slightest changes to the environment. In this way, the cause of such changes can be caught and corrected well in advance of a problem.

World demand for copper growing

During a Mar. 19 speech at the Alaska Miners Association biennial conference in Fairbanks, Rio Tinto plc CEO Tom Albanese said China recently surpassed the United States as being the world's largest consumer of copper, and its consumption is rising "at a rate that is phenomenal."

"World refined copper usage is estimated to have increased by 6.8 percent in the first 11 months of 2007, compared with usage in the same period in 2006, according to a February 2008 report by the International Copper Study Group. World usage growth was driven by China, where apparent usage grew by 37 percent as net imports of refined copper rose by 157 percent." The report does not take into account unreported uses, which could be significant.

U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R -Alaska, who also spoke at the AMA conference in Fairbanks, said the United States imports more than half of its minerals, which could become a serious concern when the growing demand overseas is taken into consideration.

Why not Pebble?

The estimated 67 billion pounds-plus of copper that Pebble could deliver would go a long way toward ensuring that the nation is able to meet its future need for copper.

The Pebble Partnership has not yet decided how it would like to develop the Pebble Project. Once the partners come forward with a mine plan, state regulators say it will take several years to permit and develop a mine.

If a mine is developed at Pebble it would provide thousands of jobs over several decades, many of which will be filled by Alaskans. A mine also would pump billions of dollars into state coffers and produce a resource that is becoming increasingly critical to the U.S. economy.

Why not Pebble?

 

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