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

By Shane Lasley
Mining News 

Alaska Miners Association turns 75

Annual convention gives industry opportunity to celebrate achievements and look ahead to challenges facing state's mining sector

 

Last updated 11/23/2014 at Noon



Valued at US$4 billion per year, Alaska's mining industry is as healthy as it has ever been. Much of this success is owed to the Alaska Miners Association, which celebrated its 75th anniversary during its annual convention and trade show held in Anchorage Nov. 3-9. The anniversary event also highlighted many of the challenges the association and its constituents face going forward.

Under the stewardship of AMA, Alaska boasts six large-scale operating mines churning out gold, silver, zinc, lead and coal. The state also continues to foster a robust placer gold mining industry that supports family-scale operations across its breadth.

Commending AMA on its 75 years during a Nov. 6 presentation at the convention, National Mining Association President and CEO Hal Quinn said, "It is really a testament to the endurance and value of, not only of Alaska mining industry, but the entire domestic mining industry."

The organization traces its founding to 1939, when a group of diverse Alaskans recognized the need to ensure the territory's miners were heard and understood when wage laws tailored for the eastern United States were being considered in the nation's capital. Succeeding in getting Alaska's mining industry exempt from such legislation marked the first triumph of the organization which continues to represent a sector with an increasing economic significance to Alaska.

"75 years ago, a group of miners had the foresight to form an organization that has been a public policy voice, an advocacy voice, for this very important industry," Sen. Cathy Geisel, R-Anchorage, reflected on the founding of AMA.

Quinn and others cautioned, however, that to continue to realize this value, the AMA needs to continue this 75-year tradition of combatting federal policies that would hamper the mining industry in Alaska and across the United States.

From an over-reaching U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to a mine permitting system ranked among the world's most inefficient, Alaska modern miners and the association that represents them are faced with a new set of challenges.

While AMA continues to advocate for Alaska's miners in Washington D.C., the association is also actively ensuring that Alaska miners' voices are heard as Gov.-elect Bill Walker readies to transition to the governor's mansion in Juneau.

"If the Walker Administration has specific concerns about our permitting process, I believe it's the role of AMA and other trade associations to engage with them and discuss," AMA Executive Director Deantha Crockett explained in a Nov. 18 email to Mining News.

Permitting system

Several presenters at the 2014 AMA convention cited the lengthy permitting process in the United States as one of the primary federal issues hindering Alaska's ability to realize the value of its vast mineral potential.

"We need to have a much more effective, more efficient permitting process," said Hecla Mining President and CEO Phillips Baker, Jr.

The Hecla CEO said his company's recent endeavor to expand the tailings facility at the Greens Creek Mine in Southeast Alaska is a prime example of the inefficiencies of permitting in the United States.

"We are expanding the tailings facility at our facility by 18 acres at a mine that has been operating for 25 years, and it is a process that has taken five years," Baker explained. "At the state level things went very well - very effective program, very thorough, but at the federal level it has gone okay, just it has taken too long."

"We are blessed with a world-class resource base here in the United States. Unfortunately, we are cursed with a third-world permitting system," Quinn added during his presentation at the AMA convention.

The NMA president says that other countries have realized that "an efficient permitting system can be a competitive advantage" in a global competition to supply resources.

"We should never mistake in this country the length of the review for the quality of the review," he explained.

Quinn said there is legislation pending on Capitol Hill aimed at reducing the time it takes to get a mining permit decision while protecting the integrity of the process.

On such piece of legislation, "National Strategic and Critical Minerals Production Act of 2013," garnered wide support in the House before getting bogged down in the Senate.

Introduced by Rep. Mark Amodei, R-Nevada, H.R. 761 aims to "enhance government coordination for the permitting process by avoiding duplicative reviews, minimizing paperwork and engaging other agencies and stakeholders early in the process" for strategic and critical mineral projects.

H.R. 761 nabbed 57 co-sponsors and passed the House 246-148. The legislation, however, has not moved since being sent to the Senate in September of last year.

With Republicans gaining control of the Senate during the 2014 elections, this legislation has a chance of getting the votes it needs to passed and sent to the president for his signature.

Regulatory certainty

Laura Skaer, executive director of American Exploration & Mining Association (formerly known as the Northwest Mining Association), said the Republican majority in the Senate also improves the chances of legislation aimed at quelling the U.S. Environmental Agency's attempt to use the federal Clean Water Act as a vehicle to veto mining projects before they have the opportunity to be vetted under the nation's permitting process.

EPA's ongoing attempt to veto or place restriction on the permits to develop a mine at the Pebble project in the Bristol Bay region of Southwest Alaska prior to the application for said permits sparked the need for legislation clarifying when the environmental agency is able to exercise its veto authority. Skaer warns, however, that the implications of such a move go far beyond Pebble.

"This is more than Bristol Bay - we are already seeing tribes in Wisconsin asking EPA to do a pre-emptive veto on a large iron mine; we have environmental groups and tribes in Minnesota who are asking the EPA to do a pre-emptive veto on the entire Great Lakes watershed and the boundary wilderness area," she explained during a Nov. 6 presentation at the AMA convention.

The Regulatory Certainty Act, sponsored by Rep. Bob Gibbs, R-Ohio, seeks to make it clear when EPA does, and does not, have the authority to prohibit or restrict a project under section 404 of the Clean Water Act.

In short, H.R. 4854 would limit the EPA's right to exercise its 404(c) authority to the duration of the permitting process, preventing the agency from singularly stopping or restricting a project before developers have an opportunity to apply for permits, or pull permits that have already been granted but not violated.

"After three years of hearings in my subcommittee, it is clear that U.S. EPA is out of control and has disregarded the intent of Congress and its longstanding partnership with the states in administering the Clean Water Act," said Gibbs, who chairs the Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment. "We all want to protect the environment but EPA has attempted multiple power grabs to unilaterally expand its own jurisdiction and authority over the states."

In July, H.R. 4854 passed out of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee with a 33-22 vote.

"Maybe now, with the changes in the Senate, we will have a chance to move that legislation on the Senate side," Skaer remarked on the legislation during her Nov. 6 presentation in Anchorage.

Incoming governor

While the effort to get Pebble a fair hearing under the permitting process has primarily been fought on the federal level, a change in administration on the state level also could pose challenges to the enormous copper-gold-molybdenum project.

On Nov. 15, incumbent Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell conceded the election to challenger Walker and running mate Lt. Gov.-elect Byron Mallott.

Though Walker ran his campaign as an independent, he considers himself a Republican in the tradition of former Alaska governors Wally Hickel and Jay Hammond. As a right-leaning independent and lifelong Alaskan, the governor-elect sees mining as an important contributor to Alaska.

"Mining has been a defining part of the state economy since early territorial days, and will continue to be a major employer throughout the state for generations to come. I strongly support mining and the development of mining projects that will make an even greater contribution to the Alaska economy and rural economies in particular. In areas where there are valid concerns about impacts on fisheries, I will be cautious to avoid negatively impacting our valuable renewable resources," according to the website for the Walker-Mallott ticket.

Despite his views of mining in Alaska as a whole, the incoming governor has taken a tentative stand against developing Pebble.

"Based on the information available to me now, I do not support the Pebble Mine," according to the Walker-Mallott website.

The governor-elect is concerned about developing a large-scale mine "in the heart of the greatest sockeye salmon producing region in the world."

"Developing a large mine in such a location presents formidable challenges. Determining whether those challenges could be overcome, and the undeniable impacts of such a mine held to acceptable levels, required a process that met high standards of public involvement, transparency, and accountability; as well as objective, rigorous, scientific and technical analysis," he expounds.

Walker and Mallott have selected Rick Halford, a former Republican senator who has been active in efforts to stop development of Pebble, as a co-chair of the incoming administration's transition team.

"The mine proponents say that we can have both - the mine and the salmon. But, this level of industrial activity just isn't compatible with maintaining wild salmon habitat," according to comments attributed to Halford on "Our Bristol Bay," a website in opposition to Pebble.

AMA Executive Director Crockett, who is already engaged with the incoming administration, is "encouraged that the Walker/Mallott team also has said they oppose the federal overreach and a pre-emptive veto by the EPA."

Crockett, who has been chosen to serve on Gov.-elect Walker's natural resources transition team, will have ample opportunity to discuss Pebble as well as Alaska's mining sector, as a whole.

"The fact that Gov.-elect Walker chose me, as representative of Alaska's mining industry, signals to me that he intends to listen to Alaska's miners and I am feeling positive about the state moving forward," she said.

The AMA executive director also is encouraged by an incoming Alaska Legislature.

"We retained some very pro-resource development Legislators, and gained a few more, including a coal miner (Dave Talerico) who is now the House Resources co-chair," Crockett explained.

"We have a tough budget situation, but we seem to have an administration and lawmakers who understand the importance of adding more taxpayers rather than asking more of the existing taxpayers, and that economic development and fiscal responsibility is the way to a sustained budget," she added.

Author Bio

Shane Lasley, Publisher

Over his more than 11 years of covering mining and mineral exploration, Shane has become renowned for his ability to report on the sector in a way that is technically sound enough to inform industry insiders while being easy to understand by a wider audience.

Email: [email protected]
Phone: (907) 726-1095
https://www.facebook.com/miningnewsnorth

 

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