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

By Shane Lasley
Mining News 

Pebble study takes a global perspective

International experts on responsible mining set stage for in-depth discussion on proposed mine for SW Alaska copper deposit


Last updated 12/19/2010 at Noon

The first of a series of independent science panels designed by the Keystone Center to address the potential development of a mine at the Pebble copper-gold-molybdenum deposit in Southwest Alaska - did not directly discuss the potential of developing the project. Instead, "Responsible large-scale mining: A global perspective," a five-member panel representing academia, non-governmental organizations and an industry corporate social responsibility organization, shared perspectives on what mining companies around the world are and should be doing to balance economic mining with protecting the environment and the people in the regions where minerals are being found.

"The panel today is not about Pebble," Keystone Center Senior Associate Todd Bryan explained at the onset of the Dec. 3 gathering. "It brings together experts who have studied the principles, practices, criteria and standards of responsibility and accountability by which mining proposals and mining operations are evaluated worldwide."

The discussion held during the day-long event was intended to provide a framework for follow-up science panels tentatively scheduled for the spring of 2011 that will delve into the extensive baseline environmental and socioeconomic studies provided by the Pebble Partnership, a 50-50 joint venture between Vancouver B.C.-based junior miner Northern Dynasty Minerals Ltd. and London-based global miner Anglo American plc.

Keystone's Pebble dialogue is expected to culminate in a final panel late in 2011 in which stakeholders can have a robust and informed discussion about the social, environmental and economic impacts and benefits of building a mine at Pebble compared to the existing no-mine conditions in this area of the Bristol Bay region.

"What we really want to do here is have this discussion and comparison about what we know about the baseline no-mine conditions and what a realistic mining proposal will look like," Bryan explained.

The day-long function brought together representatives of the companies hoping to develop the world-class deposit, state and federal regulators, legislators, lawyers and Bristol Bay residents both for and against building a mine at Pebble.

"We know there are people here who are opposed to a large-scale mine in the Bristol Bay watershed as well as people who support a mine. There may even be one or two people here who have not made up their minds," Bryan quipped.

Pebble proponents contend that mining the deposit's 80 billion pounds of copper, 107 million ounces of gold and 5 billion pounds of molybdenum will provide an economic engine to the Bristol Bay region, an area where jobs are scarce and the cost of living averages among the highest in the nation.

Opponents worry that a large-scale mine could ruin the fisheries of the region. Bristol Bay is home to the world's largest sockeye salmon fishery as well as strong runs of other salmon species. The total salmon harvest in Bristol Bay in 2010 was 31 million fish bringing an ex-vessel value of US$153 million.

Though any attempt at a melding of these wide-ranging viewpoints on the highly controversial and emotional topic seemed to be a recipe for a high-voltage event with tempers flaring, perhaps out of control, attitudes of respect prevailed among the participants in the Dec. 3 gathering throughout the day.

Whether and how

"How am I to get in?" asked Alice again, in a louder tone. "Are you to get in at all?" said the Footman, "That's the first question, you know."

The Keystone Center used this passage from Lewis Carroll's "Alice in Wonderland" to frame the goal of the Pebble dialogue.

"The panels will address both the question of whether a mine should be developed and the question of how a mine should be developed, if it is to go forward," Bryan explained.

Rep. Alan Austerman, R-Kodiak, who is advocating for a state-funded study similar to the Pebble Partnership-commissioned study, questioned the intentions of the Keystone's study. The legislator asked Bryan if the goal of the process was to develop a mine-plan for Pebble or investigate both the pros and cons of developing a large-scale mine at the deposit.

The Keystone representative said the study will first delve into the baseline conditions in the region and then will investigate a mine proposal put forward by the Pebble Partnership.

"A lot of people are saying, 'we have to see what they are doing;' we have to see if they think they can do it; and then we will evaluate that through a regulatory process," Bryan said.

Independent study?

Can Keystone conduct an independent and non-biased study of Pebble if they are being paid by the company hoping to develop the mine? This is a question that is on the minds of many people concerned about the potential mine development.

Austerman indirectly addressed the potential impartiality of Keystone's study, during a September legislative hearing that looked at whether Alaska should advance a state-funded study on the potential development of Pebble.

"They (the Pebble Partnership) are paying a third party to go through their information and look at it for them," he said. "That raises the same basic questions everyone else has: Who is doing the third-party studies and who is paying for them? The study we're proposing has nothing to do with profitability for anybody on either side of the issue."

A US$750,000 appropriation to advance a state-funded review of the possible impacts and benefits of building a large-scale mine at Pebble was included in Alaska's 2011 state budget. The Keystone Center is considered a potential applicant to conduct the study if the Legislature requests proposals for the review.

Pebble opponents were proactive in informing lawmakers of their opposition to the Keystone Center as a candidate to conduct the Alaska-commissioned study. Acquiring a full page advertisement in the Sept. 27 edition of the Anchorage Daily News, well-known Pebble opponent Renewable Resources Coalition submitted "an open letter to the Alaska Legislative Council" questioning the firm's integrity and neutrality.

"When thousands of livelihoods are at stake, our policymakers cannot be swayed by Pebble propaganda, masked by the Keystone Center mirage. Whether it is a question of (the) Center's funding or who sits on the board of trustees, we can be clear that there are significant conflicts of interests," the environmental group wrote.

In reply to the allegations of impartiality, Bryan wrote, "Our response is always the same - if our clients acknowledge our independence and allow us to fully develop impartial and objective processes, we will work with them. When we began we were skeptical that a large mining company would agree to those terms. Thus far, Pebble has walked its talk, at least with us. We are hopeful that other mining and resource development industries will adopt the approach."

"The Keystone Center stakes its 35-year reputation on its independence and takes seriously any challenges of its integrity," he added.

In response to a question from Mining News on whether Keystone could conduct an independent assessment of Pebble, Catherine Coumans, a researcher for the watchdog group MiningWatch Canada and a member of the Dec. 3 panel, said, "This is of course the concern that has been in everyone's mind."

"I think it is possible, but the proof will be in the pudding so to speak. Transparency around process on Keystone's part, and ongoing public scrutiny regarding the people chosen to conduct the independent reviews and the areas they focus on will be important in this regard," she said in an email.

Community engagement

All five panelists agreed that engaging local communities and involving them in the decision-making process is a key component of responsible large-scale mining.

In her presentation at the Dec. 3 panel, Coumans emphasized the importance of independent reviews as a means of providing communities that may be affected by potential mine development with the information they need to be knowledgeable participants in the decision-making process.

She said mining companies are typically required to complete multiple studies on the social, environmental and economic impacts and benefits of a proposed mine. She said it is important that these studies are independently reviewed to evaluate the adequacy and quality of the information being put forward by the mine proponent.

"Public review and dialogue is useful to provide additional information to stakeholders. It will also allow stakeholders to take from the review and dialogue what is of use to them and to identify areas that may not have been covered to the extent they feel is necessary," she told Mining News.

The MiningWatch researcher said she would like to see more companies adopt the use of a third-party study as a way of presenting its information to stakeholders.

"There will undoubtedly be value in this process for stakeholders as it will be a public process," she said. "But for directly affected peoples, I would still argue that they should be in a position to commission their own independent assessments of the baseline documents and all subsequent documents provided. This also will allow affected communities to decide what areas of expertise they want to bring to bear - be it traditional knowledge, financial analysis or other areas. "

Study not intended to sway opinion

Jeff Parker, an Anchorage-based attorney who represents some groups opposed to Pebble, asked whether Keystone had received a commitment from the Pebble Partnership or regulatory agencies not to permit a mine if the people determined at the end of the study that a mine should not be developed.

Bryan said the goal of the Pebble dialogue is not to sway people's decisions on Pebble, and, at the end of the process, there will likely not be a clear consensus on mine development.

"We don't intend to change anybody's minds - we are helping them make better-informed decisions through independent science," he explained. "People will decide whether to support a mining proposal or not support a mining proposal and Pebble will decide to go forward or not go forward based on more objective information that we are funneling into this process."

Answering Parker's query from the State of Alaska's perspective, Department of Natural Resources Large Mine Coordinator Tom Crafford said, "The short answer is no. It may be difficult to put it as bluntly as this, but there is no connection formally between the Keystone process and the permitting process. This is something that we have had concerns about; that there might be some public confusion about a linkage or tie between these processes."

"Certainly if there is information that comes out of the Keystone process that is valuable and can be employed during the permitting process, we will utilize it," he added.

Bryan said the Keystone Center has received a commitment from the Pebble Partnership not to move ahead with permitting until the dialogue is complete.

"A condition of our doing this is that this whole process precedes any application to state or federal agencies for permitting," Bryan said. "The preliminary mining plan that comes out of this may or may not be the plan that goes to permitting, if it does go to permitting."

Though the Keystone Center dialogue on the potential development of the Pebble Mine may not change the minds of those adamantly for or against the controversial project, it, combined with baseline studies being conducted by the Pebble Partnership and the proposed Alaska review of the project, could conceivably create the most informed group of stakeholders ever to consider the development of a large-scale mine.


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