Mining

Resource potential expands at Alaska graphite prospect

The potential of a unique Western Alaska mineral deposit keeps growing as its developers inch closer to making it a mine. Stan Foo, chief operating officer of Graphite One Inc., told a gathering of the Alaska Support Industry Alliance on May 9 in Anchorage that infill drilling done last year at the company’s Graphite Creek prospect on the Seward Peninsula helped significantly increase the resource estimates for the deposit. “We’re very excited about the improvements we made. We increased the resource by about 14 percent last year,” Foo said. Located on the northern face of the Kigluaik Mountains about 40 miles north of Nome, the Graphite Creek deposit holds measured and indicated resources estimated at nearly 11 million metric tons of ore at an average grade of about 8 percent graphite. The inferred resource is now at approximately 92 million metric tons of ore at 8 percent graphite, a 29 percent increase from figures released in a June 2017 preliminary economic assessment of the project. Overall, Graphite One now believes the deposit could hold more than 7.3 million metric tons of graphite, according to company filings. Foo said some areas of the deposit are more than 20 percent graphite and chunks of the mineral are scattered on the ground in the exploration area. “Some of this graphite is so continuous it looks like an oversized pencil lead when you see the core box (drilling samples),” he said. “It’s a very prominent mineral in the area.” Formerly Graphite One Resources Inc., the company recently dropped “Resources” so its name would better reflect plans to become an integrated graphite producer and manufacturer, instead of being solely a mine operator, according to Foo. Small-scale mining took place in the early 1900s but the area has mostly gone undeveloped since. Graphite One leaders envision a mine that would be much larger than what was done in the area previously, but would still be fairly small by today’s standards, Foo said. Current plans are for mining about 1 million tonnes of ore per year, which would be distilled at an on-site processing plant into about 60,000 tonnes of 95 percent graphite concentrate. The rough concentrate would then be shipped to a purification plant the company hopes to develop somewhere in the Pacific Northwest, where it would be refined into several types of more than 99 percent pure graphite concentrate. Graphite One partnered with the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority in 2017 to analyze the prospect of siting the purification plant in Alaska; however, access to lower-cost power in the Pacific Northwest drove the decision to site the plant further south, according to Foo. Overall development cost for the mine and processing plant was pegged at $233 million in a 2017 preliminary economic analysis of the project. The purification-manufacturing plant would cost another $130 million. Full development would also require about 270 employees at the mine, according to the PEA. The mine itself would be a relatively small open-pit operation, Foo said, and the ore would be processed using basic flotation methods. Other Graphite One officials have characterized the prospective mine as an “oversized gravel pit,” as there is no need for the chemical leaching processes commonly found at metal mines. The Graphite Creek deposit contains four types of graphite — a rarity — which led Graphite One to coin the term “STAX” graphite for its spherical, thin flake, aggregate flake, and expanded flake graphite structures, Foo said. The various types of graphite each have characteristics that make them suitable for different applications, but demand for the mineral these days mostly comes from lithium ion battery makers for use in electric vehicles and other high-stress battery applications. “These are all naturally occurring qualities of this deposit, which makes it very unique and the (U.S. Geological Survey) will be studying our deposit this year to determine exactly why this occurrence has these qualities and can we find others in the United States,” he said. He also noted that lithium ion batteries have 10 to 30 times more graphite than lithium. “We like to think they should be called graphite ion batteries. You talk to the cobalt guys; they’d like them to be called cobalt ion,” Foo quipped. In addition to being a primary component for modern energy storage, graphite has long been a popular dry mechanical lubricant. Its resistance to heat also makes it useful in high-temperature applications and its strength and flexibility make it the go-to material for fishing rods and many other uses — in addition to pencils. If developed, Graphite Creek would be the sole domestic source of graphite. China currently controls most of the world’s supply and graphite is on the U.S. Geological Survey’s critical minerals list as a strategically important material for which the country relies on imports. This year, the company will continue its resource evaluation and environmental baseline data collection work while also conducting a pre-feasibility study to evaluate the viability of the project in more detail, Foo said. He added that environmental permitting could be “very straightforward” and suggested the project could warrant a simpler environmental assessment — avoiding the rigorous environmental impact statement process — depending on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ determination on the likely impacts to wetlands. If it all goes as planned, Foo said Graphite One could be turning ground in about four years. Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

FISH FACTOR: Pebble mine critics cite concerns over dust from operations

Editor's note: In response to the statement below that "little to no baseline data on soil or sediments is presented in the draft environmental impact statement, or DEIS, compiled by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers," the Pebble Partnership supplied the following links to appendices in the DEIS containing the baseline soil and sediments data: Appendix K3-14 discusses soils  Appendix K3-18 discusses sediments  Analytical chemistry database  EBD Chapter on Trace Elements  According to the Pebble Partnership, the appendices contain data from approximately 20,000 soil/sediment sample results collected from 150+ sites across several hundred square miles.  ORIGINAL STORY Bulldozers, blasters, excavators, vibrators, jaw crushers, drillers, graders, crushers, huge trucks and other heavy equipment are tools of the trade when building and operating large mines — and they all kick up a lot of dust. In the case of the Pebble mine, the project is expected to generate 8,300 tons of so called fugitive dust in its annual mining operations. Another 5,700 tons will come from building the 83-mile main road to Cook Inlet, and the 35 times daily round trips trucking mineral concentrates will churn out 1,500 tons of road dust each year. When it’s blowing in the wind, the dust will land on at least 1,500 acres of wetlands and 300 acres of lakes, ponds and streams, according to analyses done for the United Tribes of Bristol Bay, a tribal consortium representing 15 Bristol Bay tribal governments that represent more than 80 percent of the region’s total population. The dust will contain particles of the metals being mined, notably, copper, which when it leaches into water bodies, has been proven to be toxic to the olfactory system of salmon. “Increases in copper concentrations of just 2 to 20 parts per billion, equivalent to two drops of water in an Olympic-sized swimming pool, have been shown to impact the critical sense of smell to salmon,” said Dr. Thomas Quinn, a professor at the School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences at the University of Washington. “Salmon use smell to identify predators, prey, mates, and kin. And importantly, they use sense of smell to return to their natal streams.” But little to no baseline data on soil or sediments is presented in the draft environmental impact statement, or DEIS, compiled by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that is currently undergoing public review. “One of the most eye-opening things was, when you’re looking at fugitive dust, you’re looking at it from the perspective of human health and there are 10 or 11 hazardous air pollutants that you must look at when you’re permitting for air quality. Copper is not a human health hazard, so that was completely omitted from any mention in the discussion on dust,” said Kendra Zamzow, an environmental geochemist with the Center for Science in Public Participation. Zamzow, who is from Chickaloon, has pored over thousands of supplemental documents to the DEIS called requests for information, or RFI, on behalf of the United Tribes. “They have a table in the soils chapter that lists how much they expect in concentrations of things like arsenic or cadmium or mercury increases over time in soils based on loading from dust. But there is no mention of copper. And this is going to be a copper mine,” Zamzow said. “We know from the element analyses they’ve done on concentrations in the ore and the waste rock that copper will be one of the top two components in the rock, and probably the highest of the trace metals. “And there’s absolutely no mention of the copper, which to me is really surprising because we know how copper is toxic to aquatic life, and everyone knows impacts to aquatic life is the entire reason that people are concerned about the Pebble mine.” The copper will inevitably leach into water bodies where fish and aquatic life in general will be exposed. “A lot of these particles could become available to the base of the food chain, the benthic feeders and zooplankton,” Zamzow said. The copper-saturated dust would blow from the mining area, whereas road dust would likely have a different composition. “The road dust is expected to impact a lot more waters than the mine site. But we don’t know to what extent concentrates could be making up part of the dust because it is not discussed at all. And mitigation mostly talks about watering the road,” Zamzow said. According to a 2014 Assessment of Potential Mining Impacts on Salmon Ecosystems at Bristol Bay by the Environmental Protection Agency, the transportation corridor in the Kvichak River watershed would cross approximately 64 streams and rivers of which 55 are known or likely to support migrating and resident salmonids, including 20 streams designated as anadromous waters. The corridor would run near Iliamna Lake and cross multiple tributary streams. Lower Cook Inlet also will get impacts from the Pebble dust as Amakdedori Creek in Kamishak Bay will be the export terminal to ship out the mined materials. Trucks from the mine site will transport the finely powdered concentrates to ice breaking barges for an 18 mile daily transit across Iliamna Lake, truck it on a 30-mile road to the coast, load it onto barges, then offload to a mothership 12 miles or more offshore. “They’re going to take 38-ton shipping containers off of trucks, lower them into a ship’s hold and turn them upside down to dump out the concentrates. And it will have very high concentrations of copper,” Zamzow said, adding that the DEIS says the transports will include nearly 630,000 tons of materials per year. Pebble’s mine site structures will include an open pit, a tailings storage facility, low grade ore and overburden stockpiles, quarry sites, water management ponds, milling and processing facilities, a 188-mile natural gas pipeline from the Kenai Peninsula to the site, a power plant, water treatment plants, camp facilities and storage facilities. “Building and powering a mine like Pebble or Donlin is like adding a new city to Alaska,” said Zamzow. “Dust is another example of how the Corps of Engineers has not done their job and is not holding Pebble up to a high standard of scientific rigor that Bristol Bay demands. And our decision makers are letting them,” said Alannah Hurley, United Tribes executive director. The public comment period for the Pebble Mine has been extended to June 29. Find more information at www.pebbleprojecteis.com. Expo No. 3 The third annual Bristol Bay Fish Expo is just weeks away as the region gears up for the world’s biggest sockeye salmon fishery. The event is a fundraiser for local childcare held in Naknek, the fishing hub for 10 major seafood processors and a fleet of nearly 1,000 boats. “There was no child care whatsoever in the community,” said Sharon Thompson, Expo co-organizer and board president of Little Angels Childcare Academy. The Expo so far has raised nearly $40,000 to open the doors and pay staff at the Academy, which received its state license last week to serve up to 15 children. “It has been the reason that Little Angels could continue existing while we got through the licensing process,” Thompson said. The Expo is on track to match or beat the 50 trade show vendors from last year. Other features include the premiere of The Wild, a film by Mark Titus and a visit from renowned sushi chef Taichi Kitamura who will be serving salmon dishes. Two of the biggest Expo hits are the Fashion and Wearable Art Show followed by an Auction featuring Bristol Bay fisherman and auctioneer Kurt Olson. (Donations are needed for the auction.) Invitations also have been sent to Alaska’s policy makers. “Those who are in public service and our politicians are forming the policies that will affect everything from our industry to our way of life. So, we are putting invites out to Sen. (Lisa) Murkowski, Gov. (Michael J.) Dunleavy, and a lot of others because it is an important part of our show,” Thompson said. The Expo theme this year is “feeding our families and fueling our dreams,” which Thompson said is exactly what the Bristol Bay salmon do. “We are just so grateful because our wild salmon resource is supporting all of this,” she said. “In times of budget crises, they’re putting food on our table, food in our freezers, and the wild salmon has provided a child care facility.” The Bristol Bay Fish Expo is set for June 9 and 10 at the Naknek school. See more at www.bristolbayfishexpo.com. ^ Laine Welch lives in Kodiak. Visit www.alaskafishradio.com or contact [email protected] for information.

No plan for Seward coal terminal three years after last shipment

Nearly three years after it went dark, the future of the Seward Coal Loading Facility is still unclear. The conveyor-belt loading dock extends out into Resurrection Bay from a yard near the Alaska Railroad Corp.’s terminal in Seward. From 1984-2016, it was used to load export shipments from the Usibelli Coal Mine near Healy. At its peak in 2011, the railroad moved about 200 coal trains back and forth to supply export demands, and the operation employed about 100 people between operator Aurora Energy Services, the railroad and Usibelli, according to information from the Alaska Railroad Corp. That changed in 2016, when the railroad decided to shutter the facility indefinitely after years of coal export declines. By that time, exports had decreased about 95 percent from a peak of 1.1 million metric tonnes in 2011 to 68 tonnes in 2016, only serving one ship as opposed to the 18 required in 2011. Cheaper coal from Indonesia and Australia pushed down the market price, cheaper natural gas entered the scene and the U.S. dollar was very strong, making it harder for Usibelli’s export business to pencil out. With that little volume, the railroad corporation operated the facility at an approximately $1.2 million deficit, according to the 2016 document announcing the closure. The facility isn’t useful for much else, but would remain intact for now, according to the announcement. “While unsuitable for unloading passenger vessels or cargo ships, the SLF dock can provide mooring services,” the announcement stated. “In light of the railroad’s mission to foster economic development, the facilities will be left intact for now to facilitate resumed operations in support of our customer if new opportunities arise. That meant Usibelli’s coal would be kept in Alaska to supply the state’s six coal-fired power plants. At its peak, about half of the mine’s production was being exported, so the operations took a hit when the export market disappeared. The company still views it as a temporary halt in its exports and is constantly looking for ways to reenter the market, according to Lorali Simon, the vice president of external affairs for Usibelli. However, the railroad corporation’s decisions about its coal operations have made that a higher threshold, she wrote in an email. “The Railroad, who has experienced tough financial circumstances for many years, made certain decisions regarding the Seward Facility that make it difficult to respond quickly to export opportunities,” she wrote. “The Railroad sold the coal cars used for the export business; (and) the Railroad put the facility into ‘cold storage.’ It will take capital (both time and money) to get the facility back up and running.” In 2016, the railroad corporation estimated that it would cost about $200,000 to bring the facility back online, take a 30- to 90-day lead time and require about eight shiploads annually to break even. However, that was before some of the coal cars were sold. In its 2016 announcement, the railroad corporation stated that it offered the aluminum coal hoppers to Usibelli for purchase, but the coal company declined. The railroad corporation does still maintain a fleet of coal cars. Though the railroad corporation does not have updated figures, it’s likely more expensive than that to get the facility online again, said Tim Sullivan, the director of external affairs for the railroad. “It’s probably a little bit more than that now,” he said. “If you leave it to lay fallow for a while, the costs go up.” Sullivan didn’t have an estimate available for what it would cost to dismantle the facility. At this point, the railroad’s plans for the coal loading facility haven’t changed, he said. Though it can’t be used for much else, ships can moor to it if necessary although that has been infrequent. The railroad has been reevaluating its facilities in Seward in recent years, aiming at repairing the passenger and freight docks, but those plans don’t really affect the coal loading terminal at present. The loss of the coal exporting business hit both companies in the wallet. Usibelli, which in 2011 employed 150 people, today employs about 100 people. Most of those employees have been lost through attrition rather than layoffs, Simon said. “Since roughly 30 percent of our employees are second-, third-, and fourth-generation employees, and the average tenure was close to 15 years in 2011, many folks naturally retired,” she wrote. The railroad corporation has taken hits in several markets in recent years, with a decline in the coal export business and in the oil field. Freight makes up the majority of the railroad’s revenue, with much of that coming from shipping materials north for oilfield explorations. Though the oil patch has been rebounding with increased exploration on the North Slope and potential new exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the last few years have still been financial tough on the railroad; its workforce has declined by about 100 to 150 year-round employees, Sullivan said. “We’re focused on the services that we continue to provide,” he said. “We saw the export coal market reduced and went away, and at the same time we were seeing the refined jet petroleum coming down from the North Pole refinery … decline and then disappear as well. It was a couple big hits for the Alaska Railroad. We’ve taken measure of those issues and we think we’ve gotten to a point where we can continue to weather what’s going on.” Since the beginning of the year, average coal prices on the market have declined, with production so far in 2019 about 7.2 percent behind the production at the same time in 2018, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. The long-term projections are for coal’s share in the U.S. energy generation sector to decline between the present and 2050, giving way to renewables and natural gas, according to the EIA’s 2019 Annual Energy Outlook. The U.S. is expected to continue to be a net coal exporter, but the actual amount of coal exported is not expected to increase because of competition from other producers closer to global markets, according to the outlook. At the same time, in the years since the Seward Coal Loading Facility closed, the federal administration has drastically changed to one much friendlier to coal. President Donald Trump’s administration has made several moves to change rules previously set in place during Barack Obama’s administration, including moving to reduce restrictions on emissions from coal-fired power plants. Congress also invoked the Congressional Review Act to repeal the Stream Protection Rule put in place during the Obama administration. Simon noted the repeal of the Stream Protection Rule and said the reduction in regulations “has allowed the mining industry to get back to work.” Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Trilogy keeps refining Arctic project as it awaits road permit

Trilogy Metals is in the midst of advancing two mineral prospects in Northwest Alaska but it’s still on the lookout for additional opportunities in the region. The Vancouver-based mining company is preparing its most advanced Arctic copper, zinc and precious metal deposit for permitting. CEO Rick Van Nieuwenhuyse wrote via email that Trilogy is specifically developing an environmental evaluation document to ostensibly organize and vet all of the information about the prospect and planned open-pit mining operations before it is submitted in formal state and federal permit applications. The environmental evaluation goes hand-in-hand with a feasibility-level study of the mine and its forecasted economics, according to Van Nieuwenhuyse. Trilogy has $7 million budgeted for the feasibility and environmental work this year with a goal of having the feasibility study done in early 2020. He expects to formally start the permitting process once the Ambler Mining District Industrial Access Project is “substantially permitted” through its own environmental impact statement process, he wrote. Generally referred to as the Ambler road, the access project is a state-led plan for a 211-mile unimproved industrial road off of the Dalton Highway to reach the large Ambler mining district, which holds Trilogy’s Arctic and Bornite prospects, among others, on the southern flank of the Brooks Range. The road project has drawn opposition from residents of the area and environmental groups who are worried the project will disrupt caribou migrations, which Van Nieuwenhuyse acknowledges is the most significant subsistence food source in the region. The proposed mines have also drawn scrutiny for potential impacts to salmon and whitefish runs in the Kobuk River drainage. The Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority is leading development of the road, which has an estimated cost of between $305 million and $346 million for a basic, single-lane gravel road. It would be financed by the authority with bonds that would be paid back through tolls paid by Trilogy Metals and any other companies that would develop one of the other prospects in the Ambler mining district. The Bureau of Land Management is writing the road EIS and the first draft of the environmental review is expected in late summer or early fall with a final EIS published towards the end of 2019, according to BLM’s project website. At its core, the Arctic prospect is about as good as undeveloped metal deposits come these days, according to Van Nieuwenhuyse. With just more than 43 million metric tons of probable reserves averaging 2.3 percent copper, 3.2 percent zinc and smaller amounts of lead, gold and silver, it’s roughly 10 times the average grade being mined in many other open pit copper mines today, he has said previously. Trilogy’s prefeasibility study of Arctic estimates the relatively small but high-grade prospect would cost $911 million to develop and operate over a short 12-year life but with roughly $450 million in annual free cash flow it would have just a 2-year payback. The mill and other facilities at Arctic could also be used for the company’s other, larger, but less explored Bornite copper and cobalt prospect about 20 miles to the southwest. While most of the exploration drilling at Arctic is done, Trilogy has a $9.2 million drilling program planned for the upcoming summer at Bornite. That work will be a combination of infill and expansion drilling for the existing known deposit, according to a company presentation. The Bornite prospect is on NANA Regional Corp. lands and under a partnership with Trilogy, the Alaska Native corporation can receive up to a 2.5 percent royalty on the ore concentrates produced from the prospect if it is developed into a working mine. Trilogy drilled 12 boreholes at Bornite in 2018. The prospect holds about 900 million pounds of indicated copper and 77 million pounds of indicated cobalt with another nearly 5.5 billion pounds of copper inferred, according to Trilogy’s resource analysis. Finally, Trilogy is also spending $2 million this year in a joint venture with South 32 Ltd. to conduct an electromagnetic geophysical survey of the entire roughly 75-mile long Ambler district belt. The airborne survey is being done as a new way to hunt for metal deposits in the area where dozens of prospects have been identified over the years. Targets identified by the survey will be examined more closely with follow-up drilling, Van Nieuwenhuyse said in a February company release. “It is exciting to be drilling new exploration targets again,” he said. “We are confident that we can find additional high-grade polymetallic resources along this prolific mineral belt.” ^ Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

Corps releases draft EIS for Pebble

Alaskans interested in the future of the Pebble mine project should get their reading glasses ready. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is asking for feedback on its approximately 1,400-page draft environmental impact statement, or EIS, released Feb. 20 for the Pebble project. A 90-day public comment period begins March 1. Opponents of the mine contend the Corps limited its focus to environmental impacts at the mine site and ignored potential downstream effects, particularly to fisheries. To the contrary, Pebble Limited Partnership CEO Tom Collier said the company didn’t identify any major data gaps or substantive impacts that couldn’t be addressed in the draft document. “We see no significant environmental challenges that would preclude the project from getting a permit and this shows Alaska stakeholders that there is a clear path forward for this project that could potentially generate significant economic activity, tax revenue and thousands of jobs,” Collier said in a formal statement. Pebble estimates the project will generate about 2,000 jobs during its four-year construction and about 850 full-time positions over its 20-year life. “We have stated that the project must coexist with the important salmon fishery in the region and we believe we will not harm the fish and water resources in Bristol Bay. Now we have a science-based, objective assessment of the project that affirms our work,” Collier continued. The draft EIS examines Pebble’s proposed project submitted to the Army Corps of Engineers in December 2017. The Corps adjudicates Clean Water Act Section 404 wetlands fill permit applications on behalf of the Environmental Protection Agency and the size of the Pebble project triggered a full EIS review under the National Environmental Policy Act. While the plan is scaled back from previous mine concepts, the overall project would still stretch 187 miles from the mine site north of Iliamna Lake to the edge of the Sterling Highway on the southern Kenai Peninsula. In between would be a natural gas pipeline up to 12 inches wide traversing the Cook Inlet sea floor for 95 miles from the Anchor Point area to a deepwater port at Amakdedori west of Augustine Island. From there, a two-lane, private road would run 35 miles northwest to a ferry terminal on the south shore of Iliamna Lake. An ice-breaking ferry would then shuttle materials 18 miles across roughly the midpoint of the large Iliamna Lake. Another 30 miles of industrial road would connect the north ferry terminal near the village of Newhalen with the mine site. The gas pipeline would follow the rest of the transportation corridor to the mine. According to the EIS, the 8,086-acre Pebble mine site would permanently displace 3,458 acres of wetlands and 73 miles of streams. The site would consist of a large bulk tailings dam and storage facility, a pyritic tailings storage facility, a 270-megawatt power plant, multiple water management ponds and plants and a 608-acre open pit, among other facilities. It would all support processing of about 1.4 billion tons of mine material during the 20 years of production based on Pebble’s initial plans. Roughly 100 acres of wetlands would be lost in development of the transportation corridor, according to the EIS. There would be indirect impacts from fugitive dust and partial dewatering to another approximately 1,900 to 2,100 acres of wetlands depending on which development alternatives are chosen for the final project, according to the document. Alternative construction options beyond Pebble’s proposal include a more northerly ferry and pipeline route across Iliamna to Pile Bay at the far east end of the lake with a corresponding deepwater port at Diamond Point near Williamsport instead of Amakdedori to the south. Summer-only ferry operations are also considered and would require additional storage at the mine for metal concentrates, fuel and general goods. Residents around the lake have raised concerns that a year-round ferry could disrupt winter travel across the lake ice. Another transportation alternative would eliminate the ferry altogether and instead calls for an 82-mile road around the north and east portions of Iliamna to the Diamond Point port. Pedro Bay Corp., which owns much of the land north and east of Iliamna Lake, issued a statement Feb. 22 saying the Native village corporation continues to oppose Pebble and recently rejected a right-of-way agreement for a transportation corridor across its land. Additionally, Bristol Bay Native Corp. owns subsurface rights to lands owned by area village corporations and executives have told the Journal the regional corporation may use its subsurface title to try and prevent Pebble from burying a pipeline or developing gravel quarries to build roads across village corporation lands. Alaska Peninsula Corp. owns lands south of Iliamna Lake and has a surface access agreement with Pebble. Shane McCoy, the Corps’ manager for the Pebble EIS, said in a conference call with reporters that the EPA suggested a concentrate pipeline along the north road right-of-way. The pipeline would eliminate copper-gold concentrate trucking, but 18 round trips per day between the mine and port would still be needed to haul molybdenum concentrate, fuel and other goods. The pipeline alternative also considers a second pipeline to send concentrate slurry water back to the mine for reuse. McCoy said he is not aware of other specific mines that employ lengthy concentrate pipelines but he was told the concept is in use elsewhere. The only significant change considered at the mine site is constructing a bulk tailings dam with the downstream buttress method, which is generally considered to be more stable and requires more material than the common centerline method Pebble has proposed. Corps officials note the state Department of Natural Resources is in charge of reviewing Pebble’s dam designs when the company applies for its state permits. Dry stack tailings storage — which would eliminate the risk of a bulk tailings dam failure — was discounted early in the evaluation because Pebble’s proposed mining operation would be about four times larger than the largest mine using the dry stack tailings method. It involves filtering water out of the bulk tailings until the material is 75 to 85 percent solid and “soil-like,” according to an appendix of the EIS. “(The dry stack) option would greatly complicate the logistics of the milling operation to include frequent clogging of filters, the need for an emergency storage (tailings storage facility) when the filter plant is down for maintenance, and the large number of personnel and equipment needed to transport and place the filtered tails. The option is not practicable,” the document states. Time to comment Critics of the Corps’ process contend the agency is rushing its evaluation of Pebble to fall within the four-year timeframe — starting in May 2017 — before the EPA can revisit its authority to “veto” the project. Those were the main parameters of a 2017 settlement between Pebble and the EPA that resolved a lawsuit the company filed against the agency in 2014. Former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt declined to finalize rescinding the proposed Pebble “veto” in January 2018; it’s an outstanding issue that must be resolved before the Corps can issue Pebble a Section 404 permit, if it decides to do so. Jason Metrokin, CEO of Bristol Bay Native Corp., which has led opposition to the project, said in a statement provided to the Journal that the 90-day comment period should be much longer. “A 270-day comment period on the (draft) EIS is the first — and necessary — step in holding PLP accountable during the permitting process. Bristol Bay cannot become a laboratory to test unproven and unprecedented mining practices,” Metrokin said. McCoy noted the 90-day comment period is twice the statutorily required 45 days and the Corps released the draft EIS to the public a week before the comment period begins to give interested individuals a head start on reading it. He said Corps Alaska District officials are discussing the possibility of extending the comment period. Pebble advocates argue many who are insisting on a longer comment period simply want to delay the EIS process in any way possible. Metrokin and leaders for Bristol Bay Native Association and Bristol Bay Economic Development Corp. wrote to Army Corps officials Feb. 5 requesting a 270-day draft EIS comment period. They stressed that Pebble has proposed to increase the amount of material it would mine by 25 percent since first applying for its wetlands permit and “some of the aspects of (Pebble’s) proposal appear to us to be unprecedented in the world of hard rock mining.” Sen. Dan Sullivan told reporters shortly after the EIS was published that he would likely be making a formal request to the Corps for a longer comment period given the scope and significance of the document. Sullivan has previously said he would generally like to reform and streamline the NEPA process to prevent unnecessary delays for development projects. Sen. Lisa Murkowski told the Journal in a Feb. 22 interview that her initial reaction was that the comment period should also be longer than 90 days for similar reasons but she couldn’t specify exactly how long would be appropriate because the EIS had just been released two days prior. She encouraged Alaskans to take the comment period seriously and said she will meet with Corps officials after having a chance to review the draft EIS herself. “The expectation of Alaskans and certainly my expectation is that this process that (the Corps of Engineers) is going through has to be rigorous; it has to be thorough; it has to be robust; and anything less than that is just not right and in fairness is just not acceptable,” Murkowski said of the Pebble EIS. Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

DEC nominee: Experience a plus, not a problem

Jason Brune insists his time working for a former investor in the Pebble mine project and advocating for other resource developments in Alaska is experience that benefits his newest role leading the Department of Environmental Conservation, despite claims by many detractors that it should disqualify him from consideration. Among the first appointments to Gov. Michael J. Dunleavy’s cabinet in November, Brune told Senate Resources Committee members during a Jan. 25 hearing on his confirmation that the questions regarding his professional background are “appropriate and fair,” while also noting that he has no financial interests in the Pebble Limited Partnership and has sold all of his stocks in oil and mining companies that work in the state. He highlighted a belief that Alaska has the most stringent environmental protection standards in the world and as DEC commissioner he demands everyone in the state be held to them. “My personal environmental ethic is ‘think globally, develop locally.’ I believe that provided that the companies that are trying to invest here do uphold the highest environmental standards, we should work with them to try to allow that investment and the development of those resources to occur here,” he said. Brune worked as the U.S. public affairs manager in Anchorage for London-based mining major Anglo American from 2011-14. Anglo American was a 50 percent partner in the Pebble project and invested more than $540 million in exploration and pre-development work at Pebble before announcing it would walk away from the project in September 2013. Before agreeing to lead DEC, Brune most recently worked as the lands and resources director for Cook Inlet Region Inc. He also spent more than a decade with the Resource Development Council for Alaska with about half of that time as executive director. The RDC is an organization that promotes Alaska’s oil and gas, mining, timber, tourism and fishing industries. Public testimony during the Senate hearing was overwhelmingly against Brune’s confirmation as DEC commissioner. Nearly all the individuals that testified in opposition to his confirmation cited his prior work history, contending he could not be objective in reviewing permit applications Pebble would need to submit to DEC before it can develop the large copper and gold mine. DEC is often most visible through its Spill Prevention and Response, or SPAR, Division, but the department also has primacy over several federal Clean Air and Clean Water Act programs as well as overseeing drinking water and food safety in the state. Opposition in written testimony offered to the Resources Committee before the hearing also centered on permitting Pebble. Brune received written support from industry groups such as the Alaska Miners Association, the Council of Alaska Producers and the Alaska Independent Power Producers Association. State commissioner-designees must be confirmed by a majority of legislators in a joint House and Senate vote that is usually held in spring near the end of the legislative session. Brune said in a Jan. 11 interview prior to the hearing that he doesn’t have a position on the highly contentious mine plan. “As a regulator I have the requirement to objectively look at what Pebble has to do to go through the process, so no, I don’t support the Pebble project. I don’t oppose the Pebble project. I think they deserve to have a fair hearing,” he said. The results of an annual poll of Alaskans by the Republican-led Senate majority caucus on current policy issues show that 61 percent of poll respondents oppose development of Pebble even if the company can secure all the requisite environmental permits. An outlier in the debate over Brune’s work history, Icicle Seafoods spokeswoman Julianne Curry, who is also a former executive director of United Fishermen of Alaska, wrote in support of his confirmation. “We have worked with Mr. Brune in the past and have found him to be knowledgeable and interested in finding solutions to problems facing Alaska. His hard-working nature and ability to cut directly into issues will help make him an asset in DEC,” Curry wrote. Brune said his experience in the resource industries can be beneficial to leading DEC and he believes it’s one of the reasons the Dunleavy administration asked him to apply for the job. “I’m not going to rubber stamp any permit for any project — for Pebble, for an oil and gas permit, for a fishing permit. I’m going to look at it and I’m going to make sure that they’re doing what they need to do to protect the environment but that we’re working alongside them to ensure that they’re given a fair process and that we’re partners in bringing responsible resource development jobs to the state,” he said in an interview. Brune’s undergraduate education is in biology and is what originally brought him to Alaska. He spent a summer in the early 1990s as an intern with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service cleaning and monitoring sea otters impacted by the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound. He later came close to a master’s degree in environmental science from Alaska Pacific University, but never completed his thesis. “(The otter work) was very impactful on me because I saw, of course, how resource development can be done in the worst way possible. The impacts of the oil spill, we never, as Alaskans, want to see that again. That never should have happened and it’ll never happen again hopefully and we need to put protections in place to make sure it never happens again,” Brune said. On other issues, he said DEC needs to be adequately funded so it can adjudicate permit applications but at the same time he and DEC division directors are working with Dunleavy’s Budget Director Donna Arduin to determine what the department can and can’t afford to do when the state is faced with major deficits and dwindling savings. One of the programs Brune suggested could be on the chopping block is the Ocean Ranger program, which he has heard there isn’t much support for continuing. The program was established in 2006 via a voter initiative and requires certified marine engineers or individuals with expertise in marine safety and environmental protection to monitor marine discharges from large cruise ships operating in the state. DEC also has other regulations and sampling programs to monitor cruise ship discharges, according to the Ocean Ranger web page. “There are things that in these fiscally austere times that we have to ensure are still appropriate,” Brune said. “We have things on the books that are unfunded mandates or that are not necessarily doing anything to protect the environment; they’re just adding regulatory hurdles for companies and we have to evaluate those.” Brune also stressed a belief that “local problems are best met by local solutions,” particularly noting that he hopes DEC can successfully implement recommendations on how to best improve at times dangerously poor winter air quality in the Fairbanks area from a local stakeholder group. He continued to say that he expects the issue of PFAS contamination in drinking water supplies, particularly in rural Alaska, to be a growing issue DEC will have to address during his tenure if he is confirmed. Per- and polyflouroalkyl substances, known as PFAS chemicals, are artificial chemicals used, among other things, as highly effective fire suppressants at airports. Brune said DEC is working with DOT to test wells near airports in several rural Southeast and Western Alaska communities and has found the contaminants in each well that has been tested, in addition to Fairbanks. “I think we need to be a resource for the citizens of Alaska to give them the confidence that the water they’re drinking, that the things they’re doing, are safe,” he said. ^ Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

Major projects have permitting milestones ahead in 2019

Environmental reviews are underway on a suite of development projects that could permanently change the face of Alaska. The fate of several of those projects could largely be known by this time next year. It doesn’t get any bigger than the Alaska LNG Project. Estimated to cost roughly $43 billion by the Alaska Gasline Development Corp., it would be one of the largest infrastructure developments in the history of the country and the 18,000 jobs the Labor Department says it could generate by all accounts would send Alaska into a building frenzy. Long term, Alaska LNG is seen as a means not only to monetize the state’s stranded North Slope gas reserves, but also as the key to unlocking economic development in the Interior and other remote regions of the state by providing more affordable natural gas to areas that currently rely on fuel oil for heat and diesel for power generation. Former Gov. Bill Walker, the project’s biggest champion, insists increased access to natural gas could spur the development of other, currently economically challenged resource projects across Alaska, notably Interior mines. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is scheduled to release the first draft of the Alaska LNG environmental impact statement in February, with a self-imposed final EIS deadline coming Nov. 8, 2019. The subsequent deadline for a record of decision on the project is set for Feb. 6, 2020, according to FERC’s schedule. Gov. Michael J. Dunleavy was roundly critical of Walker’s state-led Alaska LNG Project plan during his campaign, but he has mostly been quiet about his plans for the project — particularly on the financing-partner side — since being elected. Regardless, Dunleavy’s administration is expected to continue the federal permitting effort, given FERC approval would be needed for any iteration of an LNG export project. A record of decision is also expected any day for AGDC’s smaller, in-state Alaska Standalone Pipeline, or ASAP, gas project from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. On the North Slope, a couple big projects are in the midst of EIS reviews as are a couple contentious federal land-use plans. The next step for the Nanushuk oil project, now led by Australian-based Oil Search Ltd., is also a record of decision after the Corps issued its final Nanushuk EIS Nov. 2. With the potential to produce upwards of 120,000 barrels per day the Nanushuk project is the largest oil prospect moving towards development in the state. Oil Search Alaska President Keiran Wulff said in November that the company plans to exercise a $450 million option to purchase additional Alaska assets from Armstrong Energy sometime next year. Oil Search bought an operator stake in the Nanushuk project from Armstrong for $400 million in a deal announced in late 2017. First production from the Nanushuk project in the Pikka Unit is scheduled for the end of 2023, according to Wulff. The Bureau of Land Management is in the early stages of drafting an EIS for ConocoPhillips’ $4 billion to $6 billion Willow oil project to the west of Nanushuk in the federal National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska. BLM issued a notice of intent for the EIS in August after the company submitted its “Master Development Plan” for Willow. ConocoPhillips estimates Willow could produce upwards of 100,000 barrels of oil per day at its peak; first oil is pegged for the mid-2020s. A timeline for the Willow EIS is not yet available; however, Deputy Interior Secretary David Bernhardt has issued a directive to Interior agencies including BLM to have environmental impact statements done within a year. BLM also kicked off the scoping period to begin revising the NPR-A Integrated Activity Plan Nov. 21, a move made with the intent of opening more of the reserve to oil and gas leasing and potential road development. The emergence of the Nanushuk geologic formation as a major oil target across the Slope since the last plan was written, as well as advances in drilling technology make it an appropriate time to rewrite the federal land-use plan, according to Assistant Interior Secretary Joe Balash. The most prospective Nanushuk area, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, is in the northeast portion of the NPR-A around Teshekpuk Lake that was made off-limits to oil and gas leasing in the 2013 plan. Balash said when scoping commenced that rewriting the NPR-A Integrated Activity Plan should take about a year or a little longer. The scoping period for the NPR-A plan is open through Jan. 7. To the east, BLM is busy — or will be when the government shutdown ends — working on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge oil and gas lease sale EIS. The agency released a draft version of the two-volume, 756-page document Dec. 20 on the eve of the shutdown that started at midnight Dec. 21. The draft EIS offers three leasing scenarios with varying limitations on available acreage and activity timing intended to account for wildlife migrations and local subsistence activities. Each alternative would allow for at least 400,000 acres of the 1.5 million-acre ANWR coastal plain to be open for leasing over multiple lease sales Congress ordered be held before 2025. Interior officials have said they very much want to hold the first ANWR lease sale in late 2019, which would require a completed EIS. Public comments on the draft ANWR EIS are being accepted through Feb. 11. BLM has yet another EIS in the works for a project a ways down the Dalton Highway from the North Slope oil fields. The Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority is leading development of a 211-mile industrial road to access the Ambler mining district, which stretches for about 75 miles along the southern flank of the Brooks Range in the upper Kobuk River drainage. BLM is writing the EIS for the road and the first draft of that document is expected in March 2019, with a final EIS following late next year, based on the current schedule. The $280 million to $380 million limited-access gravel road is seen as the first step towards developing multiple mines in the Ambler mining district, which holds more than 30 known metal deposits; but its remoteness has precluded significant development. Not coincidentally, Trilogy Metals Inc., which for years has been exploring the Ambler district, intends to initiate an EIS for its Arctic copper, zinc and precious metals prospect next year, too, according to CEO Rick Van Nieuwenhuyse. Finally, the long-anticipated draft EIS for the Pebble mine project is expected in January from the Army Corps of Engineers. Corps Pebble project manager Shane McCoy said in a November briefing on the work that the draft EIS will evaluate three development alternatives in addition to the requisite “no-action” option. However, because of the large scope of the project — infrastructure including 35 miles of roads, a subsea natural gas pipeline, a ferry across Iliamna Lake and a major port — the EIS will have multiple “sub-alternatives” for the mine’s support infrastructure, according to McCoy. The draft Pebble EIS will touch on, but not delve into, one of the primary concerns held by those who oppose the project, McCoy said. The Army Corps of Engineers is primarily tasked with adjudicating Pebble’s Clean Water Act Section 404 wetlands fill application — a construction permit. As such, evaluating the likelihood of and potential consequences from a mine waste release is not in the Corps’ purview. That is a job for state Dam Safety Program officials and Pebble hasn’t yet applied for its tailings dam permits. However, McCoy said the Corps conducted a cursory review of spill risks given it was a prominent topic in the comments the agency received during the scoping phase of the EIS. “We did convene folks together for a very high-level spill risk scenarios that included the folks from Pebble, the folks from the state as well as AECOM’s specialists, but it’s at a much higher level than what would be required for an actual dam permit,” he said. AECOM is the third-party contractor tasked with compiling the EIS data for the project. A final Pebble EIS is tentatively scheduled for December of next year. Additionally, Pebble Limited Partnership spokesman Mike Heatwole said conducting a preliminary economic assessment for the project is on the company’s “to-do list” but it’s not a pressing matter at this point. Pebble’s opponents have long questioned the economic viability of the mine, particularly the smaller mine plan the company is currently advancing. Pebble CEO Tom Collier told the Journal in April that he wanted to have an economic analysis of the project published sometime in 2018. Attempting to permit a large mine before conducting multiple reviews of its economics is a departure from typical mine development processes. Corps officials have said they would like Pebble to provide them economic information for inclusion in the final EIS, but Heatwole contended it is not a requirement for completing the document.   Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

Year in Review: Donlin, WOTUS, Ambler and Fort Knox

In August, after nearly 25 years of work, Donlin Gold LLC got one thing every major project developer in the country desires: a favorable record of decision from the federal government. In this instance, it came as a first-of-its-kind joint ROD issued by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for the environmental impact statement and by the Bureau of Land Management for the project’s natural gas pipeline right-of-way authorization across federal land. Donlin’s final EIS was published in April; the Corps of Engineers recommended the company’s preferred project plan for approval in its ROD. Later in August the Alaska Department of Fish and Game approved a slew of Title 16 permits for development activity in salmon habitat. Donlin Gold was also one of the primary players in the successful effort to defeat Ballot Measure 1, which would have greatly increased the state’s requirements for obtaining a Title 16 permit and would have seriously challenged development of the mine, especially under its current plan. As envisioned, Donlin would be one of the world’s largest open-pit gold mines, extracting about 33 million ounces of gold over an initial 27-year life. The company is open to partnerships to help build out much of its support infrastructure — including 30 miles of road, ports and a 315-mile gas pipeline from west Cook Inlet to the Kuskokwim River mine site — which could help mitigate some of the high fixed costs the project faces, according to spokesman Kurt Parkan. A 50-50 joint venture between Canadian companies Barrick Gold Corp., the world’s largest gold producer, and NovaGold, Donlin Gold LLC has spent roughly $500 million exploring and permitting the open-pit gold project over nearly 25 years, Parkan said to the Alaska Miners Association in November. Still, that money is not factored into the $6.7 billion estimated construction cost calculated during a 2011 economic study of the project. Parkan said in an interview that the seven-year-old figure is what the company continues to work from; the focus now is on bringing it down. As a result, Donlin’s owners are resistant to putting a definitive timeline on the project, according to Parkan. While Donlin has its federal Clean Water Act Section 404 wetlands permit, the BLM right-of-way and a special permit from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, it still needs state approvals that will take several more years to acquire. 2. WOTUS revamped President Donald Trump administration took a big step towards limiting which waters and wetlands the federal government has authority over Dec. 11 when a new, draft version of the waters of the U.S. rule was released. The move is the final step in the Trump administration’s nearly two-year effort to replace an Obama-era version of the rule, oft referred to as WOTUS, finalized in 2015 but challenged in court by 12 states including Alaska. Acting Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler and Assistant Secretary of the Army R.D. James signed the proposed rule Dec. 11. The Corps of Engineers adjudicates applications for development permits in navigable waterways across the country on behalf of the EPA. The EPA has the final say over regulating development in and around navigable waters through is Clean Water Act authority. The new WOTUS rule covers traditional, large navigable waters and their tributaries that contribute year-round or intermittent flow and wetlands adjacent to other jurisdictional waters. It focuses on wetlands and other areas with surface water connections as falling under federal jurisdiction. The 2015 rule had a broader scope, including areas with subsurface water flow. Development in waters that fall under the Clean Water Act typically require some sort of mitigation or offset to the impacts of the activity, which development proponents often lament as being very costly. The members of Alaska’s congressional delegation welcomed the announcement in statements from their offices. In February 2017 President Donald Trump issued an executive order titled, “Restoring the Rule of Law, Federalism, and Economic Growth by Reviewing the ‘Waters of the United States’ Rule.” That order led to a lengthy public process to repeal the 2015 rule, which concluded earlier this year. The rule had been suspended from taking effect by the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals in Alaska and the other mostly western states that sued to stop it in 2015. 3. Ambler cost drops; permitting on horizon as road advances Early in the year Trilogy Metals CEO Rick Van Nieuwenhuyse said the overall cost to build and operate the company’s proposed copper, zinc and precious metal mine in the Ambler mining district was coming down. By the end of the year Van Nieuwenhuyse was saying the company plans to start permitting the mine in the first half of 2019. The pre-feasibility study for Trilogy’s Arctic deposit was released Feb. 20 with a development cost of $780 million, up about 9 percent from a 2013 estimate. However, a 60 percent drop in expected annual operating and 20 percent decrease in closure and reclamation costs — to about $65 million each — cut the all-in cost for the initial 12-year mine by 5.5 percent from $964 million in 2013 to $911 million today. Trilogy executives said during a call with investors that the drastic drop in operating costs is due to changes in the plan for waste rock and tailings management, fuel and federal tax reform. The Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority is leading development of a 211-mile industrial road to access the mining district. The Bureau of Land Management is writing a separate EIS for the road and the first draft of that document is expected in March 2019, with a final EIS following late next year, based on the current schedule. The National Park Service is also preparing an environmental and economic analysis that is also expected to be finished next spring. At its core, the Arctic prospect is about as good as undeveloped metal deposits come these days, according to Van Nieuwenhuyse. With just more than 43 million metric tons of probable reserves averaging 2.3 percent copper, 3.2 percent zinc and smaller amounts of lead, gold and silver, it’s “about 10 times the average grade being mined in open pit copper mines today,” he said in October. The Clean Water Act Section 404 wetlands fill permit from the Corps — large enough to trigger an EIS — is likely the only federal permit the mine will need, according to Van Nieuwenhuyse, noting the Environmental Protection Agency has oversight of the water and air quality permits issued by the State of Alaska. 4. Fort Knox expands Interior business interests got welcome news in June when they heard one of the largest employers in the region should be open for 10 years longer than originally planned. Kinross Gold Corp. announced June 12 that it has decided to move forward with a $100 million expansion to the Fort Knox gold mine about 25 miles northeast of Fairbanks. A feasibility the Toronto-based Kinross conducted on the prospect, known as the Gilmore project, indicates it could yield 1.5 million ounces of gold and initially extend operations at Fort Knox to 2030. Milling at the mine is expected to stop in late 2020 without it, according to Kinross. Now, mining is expected to continue into 2027 with ore processing running to 2030. The mine opened in 1996. Gilmore also increased the proven and probable gold reserves at Fort Knox by 2.1 million ounces to 3.4 million ounces overall, according to a company statement.] CEO J. Paul Robinson said the company will likely be able to fund the $100 million expansion with Fort Knox’s existing cash flow, which will help Kinross maintain financial flexibility. Fort Knox is on land owned by the state Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority; the expansion, known as the Gilmore project, is on a recently acquired 709-acre parcel of state land just to the west of the existing mine pit that was previously held by the federal National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. First gold from the Gilmore project is expected in early 2020.

British Columbia seeks bids to remidate Tulsequah Chief mine

British Columbia mining regulators have taken the first step toward paying to clean up an abandoned mine that has been leaking acid runoff into Alaska waters for decades. The British Columbia Ministry of Energy, Mines and Petroleum Resources issued a request for proposals Nov. 6 soliciting bids to remediate the Tulsequah Chief mine located in the Taku River drainage about 10 miles upstream from the Alaska-British Columbia border. State officials contend the multi-metal mine that operated for just six years has been leaking acid wastewater into the Tulsequah River, which feeds the Taku, since it was closed in 1957. The Taku River empties into the Pacific near Juneau and is one of the largest salmon-bearing rivers in Southeast Alaska. The Alaska congressional delegation and Gov. Bill Walker’s administration have stepped up their demands for provincial officials to address the situation in recent years — largely at the behest of Southeast commercial fishing and Native groups — after the mine’s latest owners, Toronto-based Chieftain Metals Ltd., began bankruptcy proceedings in 2016. Sen. Dan Sullivan and former Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott traveled to Ottawa to meet with Canadian officials in February to discuss their environmental and fishery concerns about government oversight of mining activity within transboundary watersheds in the province that flow into Alaska. A burst of mining activity in the remote northern region of the province has led to numerous new mines and mine proposals in transboundary watersheds. At the same time, the Energy, Mines and Petroleum Ministry has come under scrutiny for its regulatory requirements of mines after a British Columbia auditor general report concluded the 2014 Mount Polley mine tailings dam breach was the result of inadequate engineering. The Mount Polley copper and gold mine is in the upper reaches of the large Fraser River watershed. Alaska officials have also requested their provincial counterparts assist in conducting baseline environmental studies in the lower reaches of transboundary watersheds to monitor things such as water quality in advance of upstream mine development. Sullivan said in a Nov. 19 statement from his office that he is encouraged the provincial government has finally taken a more active role in cleaning up the troubled and abandoned mine. “The announcement that the government intends to move forward and develop a remediation plan is a step in the right direction. As voices on both sides of the border have been asking for years, it’s time for the B.C. government, the state of Alaska, Alaska Native and First Nations communities to work together to remove this and other looming threats over our rivers, fisheries, communities’ health and wellbeing,” Sullivan said. Gov. Walker wrote to British Columbia Premier John Horgan Oct. 31 thanking him for the work the state and province have done on transboundary issues but reiterated an ongoing worry about whether the financial assurances the province requires of mining companies are adequate to protect such rivers. “These concerns arise, in significant part, because statutory decision-makers in British Columbia may accept less than full security based on a company’s financial strength, and the public has less access to the data and analyses used to set the amount of financial assurances in British Columbia,” Walker wrote. He continued to stress that the decades-old problems with the Tulsequah Chief mine do not inspire confidence in the province’s oversight of its mines. “As long as contaminants from the site continue to drain into the Tulsequah River and downstream to the Taku River, people on our side of the border will worry about the health of the fish and other marine life in Alaska that depend on the quality of these waters,” Walker wrote. “Alaskans will also continue to question the ability of Canada and the province to assure mineral development is done without sacrificing environmental values.” Chris Zimmer, an Alaska director for the Juneau-based transboundary watershed conservation advocacy group Rivers Without Borders said Nov. 13 that since two companies have gone bankrupt after attempting to re-open the mine, “Permanent mine closure with full reclamation would be the best and most cost-effective solution to the Tulsequah Chief issue and we urge the B.C. government to adopt such a plan, as opposed to partial interim measures such as on-site water treatment.” Chieftain Metals acquired the underground mine in 2010 with plans to re-open it. The company installed a water treatment plant to resolve the acid drainage problem in 2011 but the plant was shut down in June 2012 after just nine months because it did not perform up to expectations. Chieftain stopped permitting efforts to resume mining in 2015, according to provincial regulators. Proposals to clean up Tulsequah Chief are due by Dec. 13. It’s unclear how much the effort will cost.

Donlin Gold notches wins in 2018, but still far from finish line

This has been a big year for those behind the Donlin Gold project. They received a favorable record of decision from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Land Management Aug. 13 — a first-of-its-kind joint decision for the project’s environmental impact statement and right-of-way approval for a natural gas pipeline across federal lands. Later that month the Alaska Department of Fish and Game approved a slew of Title 16 permits for development activity in salmon habitat. Donlin Gold was also one of the primary players in the successful effort to defeat Ballot Measure 1, which would have greatly increased the state’s requirements for obtaining a Title 16 permit and would have seriously challenged development of the mine, especially under its current plan. However, there are still many unknowns surrounding the development and plenty left to do, according to Donlin Gold spokesman Kurt Parkan. A 50-50 joint venture between Canadian companies Barrick Gold Corp., the world’s largest gold producer, and NovaGold, Donlin Gold LLC has spent roughly $500 million exploring and permitting the open-pit gold project over nearly 25 years, Parkan told a gathering at the Alaska Miners Association conference Nov. 8. Still, that money is not factored into the $6.7 billion estimated construction cost calculated during a 2011 economic study of the project. Parkan said in an interview that the seven-year-old figure is what the company continues to work from; the focus now is on bringing it down. As a result, Donlin’s owners are resistant to putting a definitive timeline on the project, according to Parkan. And the price of gold plays a big role in that, too. It’s safe to say, however, that current prices of about $1,200 per ounce will not suffice. “They hesitate to really reveal what they feel is the trigger point because if we hit it that still may not be the time to pull the trigger,” he said while emphasizing the company is focused on the process of the project and letting extraneous factors settle themselves. “It’s not going anywhere. The price of gold is going to go up, it’s just a matter of when and how much,” Parkan added. “This project will be developed at some point.” As envisioned, Donlin would be one of the world’s largest open-pit gold mines, extracting about 33 million ounces of gold over an initial 27-year life.The company is open to partnerships to help build out much of its support infrastructure, which could help mitigate some of the high fixed costs the project faces, he said. “If somebody wants to finance the pipeline, we’ll buy the gas. If somebody wants to build the power plant, we’ll buy the power,” Parkan said. The 14-inch, 315-mile natural gas pipeline the company plans to build from Cook Inlet to provide feedstock for the 220-megawatt power plant at the Southwest Alaska mine site has been estimated to cost about $1 billion. Additionally, the project will require about 30 miles of new roads and two new ports. Parkan also noted that technical changes might need to be made to the current design in order to secure the remaining necessary permits, which could add cost as well. While Donlin has its federal Clean Water Act Section 404 wetlands permit, the BLM right-of-way and a special permit from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, it still needs state approvals that will take several more years to acquire. Parkan said Donlin is waiting on for rulings on its reclamation and closure plan and integrated waste management permit yet this year; the public comment periods for both are closed. In the coming years the company will look to get its pipeline right-of-way and other land authorizations from the State of Alaska as well as its water rights and dam safety permits. The tailings dam safety permit will require additional field seasons for geotechnical drilling, he said. All that work means the project is still a long ways from completion; the mine and associated infrastructure will take another three to four years to build whenever the last of the preconstruction work is wrapped up. Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

Sullivan: deregulation will be a relief to Alaska economy

U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan continues his push to purvey positivity to Alaskans, which he says is largely a result of federal policy changes over the past two years. He acknowledged Alaska is still facing the challenges of a lingering recession— possibly coming out of it this year — crime and substance abuse during an Election Day speech at the Alaska Miners Association convention, but stressed there are positives on the horizon for the economy. “There’s a lot of things where I think, just around the corner, if we make good choices today, to be blunt and continue the trajectory on, I think we’re looking at the possibility of a real jobs and economic boom coming to our state,” Sullivan said. He contended the corporate tax cuts Congress passed last December have helped U.S. businesses be more competitive and make job-creating investments. A point he makes regularly, Sullivan noted the second and third quarter GDP growth of 4.2 percent and 3.5 percent, respectively, which he said simply didn’t occur after the Great Recession during the Obama administration. “What really made this country great was consistent 3.5, 4 percent, 5 percent, 6 percent GDP growth, which was normal — Democrat, Republican, doesn’t matter — that’s what we used to do for 200 years,” Sullivan stressed. The job creation that has driven national unemployment as low as it’s been in 50 years, according to Sullivan, at 3.7 percent in September should be headed to Alaska, he said. To the crowd of miners he specifically discussed his efforts and those of Congress in concert with the Trump administration to roll back environmental regulations that he says were often intended to stymie resource industries. Sullivan cited the repeal of the Army Corps of Engineers 2015 wetlands jurisdiction update known as the Waters of the U.S., or WOTUS, rule. Proponents argued it simply clarified what waters the Corps of Engineers and the Environmental Protection Agency have jurisdictional authority over. Republicans and some Democrats said it would have drastically increased the scope of the agencies’ authority and would have led to Clean Water Act permits for development and agriculture in many places they are currently aren’t required. The Republican majority in Congress has used the Congressional Review Act to block or rescind primarily environmental regulations from the Obama administration 16 times in the past two years, according to Sullivan. He recalled a phone conversation he had with President Donald Trump early in his presidency in which Sullivan outlined his Regulations Endanger Democracy, or RED Tape Act, legislation that would require federal agencies to repeal an old regulation each time another is promulgated. “(Trump) said, ‘You know, one in, one out, I’m actually more interested in one in, two out,’” Sullivan said of the call. “And if you actually look at what (the administration) has done, I think they’re actually around one in, nine out.” He highlighted that the administration has also incorporated portions of his Rebuild America Now Act — legislation to reform the landmark 1969 National Environmental Policy Act that established the comprehensive environmental impact statement review for large development projects — into its executive actions. His bill, which he said he will be pushing again in the next Congress, would put one agency in charge and place a “two-year shot clock” on NEPA project reviews, according to Sullivan. Deputy Interior Secretary David Bernhardt said during a trip to Alaska in March that he handed down a directive for Interior agency staff to limit EIS reviews to one-year. Partially as a result of that, BLM is expected to hold an oil and gas lease sale for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge coastal plain sometime in 2019, Sullivan added. “This isn’t cutting corners; this isn’t trying to pollute the environment. This is just common sense,” he said. “All of these things are completely common sense. If you look at the things other industrialized democracies — Canada, Australia — do permitting mines. These are what they do; things we need to do.” In other forums Sullivan has been questioned Canadian environmental standards related to mining. He has urged British Columbia officials review the province’s environmental requirements for mines, particularly as they relate to active or potential mines in the several large salmon-bearing rivers that flow from the province and through Southeast Alaska. An issue that is starting gain bipartisan traction in Congress, according to Sullivan, is that of China’s dominance in the rare earth metals sector, and what can be done to reverse the trend. China is the primary producer of rare earth elements used in technological devices and by the Department of Defense in advanced weapons systems. “It just makes sense” to produce such critical minerals in the U.S., he said. The 2019 National Defense Authorization Act passed last summer includes provisions discouraging the Defense Department from purchasing products or devices containing rare earths sourced from a short list of countries including China. Finally, Sullivan said before votes were tallied that he does not usually comment on state policy initiatives, but emphasized how large of a threat he feels Ballot Measure 1, the anadromous fish habitat initiative is to development in Alaska. “We have challenges, but I am so optimistic about the future, assuming that Ballot Measure 1 gets defeated today,” he said. The measure was defeated soundly by a nearly 2-1 margin. Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

Mining exploration on the rebound at new, old prospects

A recent resurgence in oil exploration in Alaska has been a topic of much discussion for the potential revenue it could eventually generate for state coffers, but there is ample exploration activity in the state’s mining sector as well. At existing mines, Teck Resources Ltd., which operates the Red Dog zinc mine near Kotzebue in Northwest Alaska, has been exploring the Aktigiruq prospect about seven miles north of the mine facilities. Teck CEO Don Lindsay has said it could end up being “one of the best undeveloped zinc deposits in the world” if initial drilling results are proven up. Red Dog is already one of the largest zinc-producing mines on Earth. Earlier this year Kinross Gold Corp. announced it would start work on a $100 million expansion to the Fort Knox gold mine just northeast of Fairbanks that is expected to keep the mine open for another 10 years through 2030. The Gilmore project, as it is known, could yield up to another 1.5 million ounces of gold for the open-pit mine that opened in 1996, according to a feasibility study Kinross conducted on the prospect. Production from Gilmore could start in early 2020, the company estimates. Geologist Bonnie Broman told a gathering at the Alaska Miners Association in Anchorage Nov. 6 that the newly formed private Alaska exploration firm Valhalla Metals Inc. has acquired 230 mining claims covering 36,000 acres in the Ambler mining district farther north of Fairbanks and west of the Dalton Highway. Valhalla’s claims include the Sun copper and zinc prospect that the company plans to advance in the coming years. The easternmost deposit in the Ambler district, the Sun prospect was first discovered in 1974 by Sunshine Mining Co. and has changed hands frequently since. Valhalla is the 10th company to control the claims since Sunshine made the initial discovery, according to Broman. The Sun prospect was regularly drilled in the years immediately following its discovery, but the work mostly stopped in the 1980s and 1990s following the passage of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act in 1980, as did much of the mining exploration activity going on in the state at the time, Broman said. The area was most recently explored from 2007-12 by Canadian Andover Mining Corp., which went bankrupt in 2014. Overall, more than 19,100 meters of drilling has been done at Sun since it was first discovered. “This area has had quite a bit of work done to-date. There’s quite a lot of known prospectivity in the region,” Broman said. The Sun deposit sits east of the Arctic and Bornite multi-metal prospects currently being advanced by Trilogy Metals. Trilogy plans to begin permitting Arctic early next year but development of the remote Ambler prospects is dependent upon construction of the roughly 211-mile Ambler industrial access road. The Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority is leading development of the industrial road to access the mining district. The Bureau of Land Management is in the midst of writing an environmental impact statement for the road and the first draft of that document is expected in March 2019, with a final EIS following late next year, based on the current schedule. AIDEA officials believe the access the road would provide could spark further exploration activity in the region, as well. Specifically to Sun, Broman said mineralization has been intersected over a 3.5 kilometer strike. So far it’s estimated the deposit holds 10.7 million metric tonnes of indicated and inferred resources of 4.2 percent zinc, 1.5 percent copper and 1.4 percent lead. It also has prospectivity for silver and small amounts of gold, she added. Broman said unlike the Arctic and Bornite prospects, Sun would likely be an underground mine and it’s not uncommon for mineralization in similar sulfide deposits to continue to depths of 1,000 meters. “There is potential to add resources at Sun by drilling the down dip portion,” she said, as it has not been explored at depth. Valhalla expects to continue exploration drilling at Sun in the coming years and will also be looking for new deposits elsewhere in its claims area, she said. Icy Cape progress Along Alaska’s south coast the Alaska Mental Health Trust Land Office continues to advance its unique heavy industrial minerals prospect in the beach sediments of Icy Cape. About 75 miles northwest of Yakutat, the roughly 30-mile long, 50,000-acre Mental Health Trust property is approximately half covered by sediments containing heavy industrial minerals, according to Trust Land Office Minerals and Energy Chief Karsten Eden. The Trust Land Office manages roughly 1 million acres of land across Alaska for real estate and resource development purposes, the proceeds of which go to fund the Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority’s work to benefit Alaskans with mental health and addiction challenges. “It’s a totally different kind of geology and it’s a totally different kind of exploration, but it’s exciting,” Eden said during a presentation at the AMA convention Nov. 6. The eastern portion of the large property contains sediments from the glaciers of Icy Bay, while the river deposits on the coastal plain influence the area to the west. All of the sediments contain heavy minerals, according to Eden. The heavy minerals are often used in industrial applications in which hard, abrasive materials are required, such as sandpaper and sandblasting. The sediments also contain ilmenite, which is highly magnetic and is a common industrial mineral often used as white pigment feedstock in paints and plastics, he said. The Trust Land Office has been investigating the prospect for four years; drilling started in 2017 and continued last summer. During the 2018 work season the TLO spent roughly $3 million, had a crew of 24 working at the Icy Cape camp and built a 60-foot by 40-foot sample processing facility — a shed — to further evaluate the drilling samples. Eden said the office has had to use sonic drilling to bore through the sediments. “The drilling conditions are really challenging. Those are abrasive sands,” he commented. The multiple sources mean the sediments are separated into two distinct layers, which provide different mineral grain sizes, an important benefit to the project, according to Eden. “Particle size is very important because it has an impact on recovery,” he said. “Out there we have mineable and recoverable particle sizes including platinum group minerals. It’s a poly-mineralic and poly-metallic deposit. It’s very, very interesting. If developed, the Trust property would be the only source for some heavy minerals such as garnets on the West Coast, Land Office officials have said. There is currently a global shortage of garnets, another abrasive, as India, the world’s longtime primary supplier has stopped exporting mineral sands altogether in an effort to halt illegal private exports, Eden added. The Trust Land Office plans to continue exploring the area in the coming years, he said. Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

Permitting to start on Ambler copper prospect early next year

More than 60 years after it was initially prospected, Trilogy Metals is almost ready to apply for the major environmental permits it will need for the first project in one of Alaska’s premier areas with mining potential. Trilogy Metals Inc. CEO Rick Van Nieuwenhuyse said Oct. 4 that the company has started pre-permitting work with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for its Arctic copper, zinc and precious metals prospect in advance of an environmental impact statement that should be initiated in the first half of 2019. The Clean Water Act Section 404 wetlands fill permit from the Corps — large enough to trigger an EIS — is likely the only federal permit the mine will need, Van Nieuwenhuyse said, noting the Environmental Protection Agency has oversight of the water and air quality permits issued by the State of Alaska. The Arctic prospect is roughly in the middle of the extensive Ambler mining district. Stretching for about 75 miles along the southern flank of the Brooks Range, there are more than 30 known metal deposits in the district, but its remoteness has precluded significant development. The Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority is leading development of a 211-mile industrial road to access the mining district. The Bureau of Land Management is writing a separate EIS for the road and the first draft of that document is expected in March 2019, with a final EIS following late next year, based on the current schedule. “This project is in the middle of nowhere and this road has been studied, discussed, many, many, many times,” Van Nieuwenhuyse said. The road project, which is separate from Trilogy’s mine work, has drawn stiff opposition from residents of the area and environmental groups who are worried the project will disrupt caribou migrations, which Van Nieuwenhuyse acknowledges is the most significant subsistence food source in the region. The proposed mines have also drawn scrutiny for potential impacts to salmon and whitefish runs in the Kobuk River drainage. The National Park Service is also preparing an environmental and economic analysis that is also expected to be finished next spring. AIDEA estimates constructing the most basic single-lane gravel road would cost between $305 and $346 million. It would be financed by the authority with bonds that would be paid back through tolls paid by Trilogy Metals and any other companies that would develop one of the other prospects in the Ambler mining district. The plan is very similar to the Red Dog mine-DeLong Mountain Transportation System — also an AIDEA-owned and financed mine access road —in far Northwest Alaska that development proponents have cited as a model for other isolated resource prospects in the road-scarce state. At its core, the Arctic prospect is about as good as undeveloped metal deposits come these days, according to Van Nieuwenhuyse. With just more than 43 million metric tons of probable reserves averaging 2.3 percent copper, 3.2 percent zinc and smaller amounts of lead, gold and silver, it’s “about 10 times the average grade being mined in open pit copper mines today,” he said. “It’s not a huge mine, but it produces metal above its weight class because of the grade — 160 million pounds of copper annually, 200 million pounds of zinc, 33 million pounds of lead, over 3 million ounces of silver and 30,000 ounces of gold.” Those numbers are based on a short, 12-year mine life. According a pre-feasibility study released in February, Arctic would generate costs of $911 million to build and operate over that time but with roughly $450 million in annual free cash flow would have just a 2-year payback. “We don’t need higher metal prices to make this thing work,” Van Nieuwenhuyse said. “We just need a road.” The mill and other facilities at Arctic could also be used for Trilogy’s other, larger but less explored Bornite copper and cobalt prospect about 20 miles to the southwest or other undeveloped prospects in the area, he added. The company currently estimates Bornite contains upwards of 6 billion pounds of copper, a figure that could grow this coming winter when the results from this year’s drilling campaign. The last two years of exploration at Bornite have been funded by $10 million annual payments from the Australian mining company South 32, which, after a third payment, will have the option of investing another $150 million in the project and forming a 50-50 joint venture with Trilogy, according to Van Nieuwenhuyse. Trilogy has spent $122 million exploring its Alaska prospects overall. The company also has a partnership with NANA Regional Corp., the Northwest Alaska Native regional corporation, which owns land at Bornite. NANA can receive up to a 2.5 percent royalty on the ore concentrates produced from Trilogy’s mines under the partnership, according to a company presentation. Another open-pit prospect, Bornite holds about 125 million metric tons of reserves with about 1 percent copper, but there is potential for an underground mine with 58 million tons of 3 percent copper, he noted. Bornite was also discovered in the 1950s by a prospector well known in mining circles named Riney Berg, according to Van Nieuwenhuyse, who offered a brief anecdote about his work. “He was out there looking for uranium; he had worked at the Kennecott mine so he knew what copper minerals looked like, found some on the surface, did some trenching and got the Kennecott guys all excited. They eventually wrote him a check for $6 million,” he said, noting the value of that much money roughly 60 years ago. “Riney, being a good prospector, spent it all on prospecting. There’s probably a dozen different prospects in Northern Alaska that have his name on it.” Trilogy is also finishing up an study to see if ore sorting systems used by recycling companies can be applied in mining Arctic. The process uses sensors similar to magnetic resonance technology that “recognize what rocks have copper, silver, lead and what rocks don’t,” Van Nieuwenhuyse said. “If we could just mine the stuff we want we could get 3 percent copper, not 2 percent,” he said. The sorting process is proven to work, it’s just not proven to be economic yet, he added. Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

Pebble permit scoping report first step toward EIS

The summary released Aug. 31 by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers of the topics the public wants studied in the lead up to a permitting decision for the proposed Pebble mine was met with criticism from groups who feel the mine review is being fast-tracked. The comments that make up the scoping report are, as the name implies, intended to guide the scope of analysis in the environmental impact statement, or EIS, the Corps is in the midst of drafting for the large mine project. Not meant to be a referendum on the controversial mine plan, the Corps received 174,889 comments during the 90-day scoping period that ran until June 29, according to the report. The Corps extended the original 30-day comment period shortly after it opened April 1 following requests to do so from Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Gov. Bill Walker’s administration, who suggested the month-long comment period could be insufficient given the scale and complexity of the project. Public meetings were also held in nine communities during scoping, but mine opponents contended more should have been held in the numerous remote villages and small towns across the Bristol Bay region that have the potential to be impacted by the project. Much more than a large surface mine, the Pebble project would stretch over 187 miles from the start of a natural gas pipeline near Anchor Point on the Kenai Peninsula, across Cook Inlet to a new port that would be built near Amakdedori on the west side of the Inlet. From there, the transportation corridor would include 53 miles of new road plus a ferry across massive Iliamna Lake that would lead to the mine itself. “The input we received is insightful and helpful, informing our analysis and potential alternatives to be included in the draft EIS,” Corps Project Manager Shane McCoy said in a prepared statement. Though the Corps received nearly 175,000 submissions during scoping, just 3,653 were considered individual comments, with the remaining roughly 171,000 being various form letters, according to the report. More than one-third of the non-form comments focused on the potential socioeconomic impacts of the project; the rest were split roughly evenly between suggestions and concerns regarding the National Environmental Policy Act process, the proposed tailings dam facility and prospective project impacts to fish and wildlife. More than half of the form letters focused on the NEPA process. Groups opposing the project were critical of the 37-page scoping report, alleging it glosses over many important issues that need review in the EIS. United Tribes of Bristol Bay, Commercial Fishermen For Bristol Bay and Trout Unlimited Alaska all called for state and federal leaders, particularly Murkowski, to pressure the Corps to slow or stop the EIS until a more thorough review of the project’s potential impacts is done. Trout Unlimited Alaska stated in a press release responding to the publication of the report that more than 400,000 comments were submitted that raise concerns about Pebble’s permit application. Pebble Limited Partnership spokesman Mike Heatwole said simply via email that the company will continue to work closely with the Corps to help the complete the draft EIS in a timely manner. The totality of the Corps’ review is unclear at this point given the draft EIS has not yet been published, but the aggressive schedule set for the Pebble EIS has also been a point of contention. Pebble Limited Partnership submitted its project plan to the Corps for review in late December 2017 and Corps officials plan to have a draft EIS finished in January 2019, or between six and seven months after the scoping period closed. Comparatively, it took the agency nearly three years to draft the first version of the EIS for the Donlin Gold mine permit application, a large surface mine proposal with extensive support infrastructure similar to Pebble. Corps regulatory officials insist they are applying best practices learned during the Donlin review to the Pebble EIS, allowing them to speed up the process while performing the same level of analysis. Aside from expected comments highlighting the economic opportunities the project could provide to a region with few year-round jobs and the potential harm a tailings dam failure could have on salmon habitat downstream of the mine, many commenters stressed the need to study possible impacts to subsistence activities not only in the Bristol Bay area but also near the gas pipeline origin on the Kenai Peninsula. Some noted the mine could reduce out-migration from the region, helping to maintain enrollment in small schools in the area, while others contended the mine — with a 20-year initial life — would simply create a greater boom-and-bust economic cycle that would end with lost jobs when the mine closed. Suggestions were made to require an economic assessment of the project be conducted to determine if Pebble Limited Partnership’s plan is financially viable. Pebble CEO Tom Collier said in an April interview with the Journal that the company plans to release a preliminary economic assessment of its latest project plan by the end of the year. Heatwole said in a Sept. 4 email that he had no further information to provide about the status of the economic report. Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

Feds approve Donlin mine plan in unique joint decision

One of the world’s largest gold prospects is one big step closer to becoming one of the world’s largest gold mines after federal agencies issued a first-of-its-kind decision Aug. 13 in Anchorage.  U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Alaska District Commander Col. Michael Brooks and Assistant Interior Secretary Joe Balash signed a joint record of decision to finish the environmental impact statement for Donlin Gold’s proposed open-pit mine and approve a right-of-way across federal land for a natural gas pipeline that will fuel the mine’s large power plant.  The record of decision generally approved Donlin Gold’s preferred construction plan for the gold mine near Crooked Creek in the upper Kuskokwim River drainage. More specifically, it approved the project’s Clean Water Act Section 404 wetlands fill permit application — applications the Corps adjudicates for the Environmental Protection Agency. Donlin’s permit allows for the disturbance of roughly 3,500 acres of wetlands, according to the EIS documents.  Donlin General Manager Andy Cole said the record of decision is the result of more than 20 years of thorough planning.  “I think it clearly demonstrates that the project has a track record of engineering excellence and a strong culture of safety, environmental stewardship and community engagement, all values that will remain constant,” Cole said. “We believe that Donlin Gold can be a model of responsible mine development with the potential to generate meaningful benefits for our Native corporation partners and communities throughout Alaska for many decades to come.”  The EIS was initiated in December 2012.  Donlin spokesman Kurt Parkan noted that nearly 400 meetings were held on the company’s proposal, with about 350 of those led by the company and another 50 or so by the Corps of Engineers.  However, the world-scale mine that would extract upwards of 33 million ounces of gold over an initial 27-year life is only part of the overall project. Substantial support infrastructure for the mine would also be built, including a 312-mile, 14-inch natural gas pipeline from near Beluga on the west side of Cook Inlet to the mine site to provide a fuel supply for the 227-megawatt power plant at the mine site. Donlin’s plan also calls for a 30-mile access road from the Kuskokwim to the mine as well as expanding the Bethel barge dock and constructing additional fuel terminals in Dutch Harbor.  Donlin Gold leaders acknowledge the project is more sensitive to gold prices than even other Alaska prospects simply because of its associated infrastructure costs.  Gold was trading for nearly $1,200 per ounce on Aug. 14.  “It’s safe to say that the price of gold currently is too low,” Parkan wrote in an email.  Donlin Gold estimates the mine and associated infrastructure that includes a natural gas pipeline from west Cook Inlet and fuel storage all the way in Dutch Harbor, will cost $6.7 billion based on its plan from a 2011 feasibility study.  Donlin Gold is owned by Canadian-based Novagold Resources Inc. and Barrick Gold Corp.  Brooks said at a signing ceremony held at the Corps’ Alaska headquarters on Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson that the joint Donlin decision — the first of its kind in the nation — is the last major permit he will approve. Brooks handed over command of the Corps Alaska District Aug. 14; he said he is retiring after 25 years of service.  Corps officials emphasized that the record of decision was made into an event less for the decision rendered than for the fact that it was the product of multiple agencies reaching a single conclusion.  “I think it is something to be celebrated that different parts of the federal government are working together to streamline these processes,” Brooks said.  Corps Alaska Regulatory Chief David Hobbie said in an interview that the public will be split on whatever decision an agency makes regarding a major project such as Donlin, adding that lessons learned from this EIS can be applied to similar projects in an effort to speed up the decision-making process.  “This really wasn’t about Donlin’s good, bad or indifferent; it’s about the joint record of decisions because the federal government came together and spoke with one voice. That’s good for the taxpayer, right? Even if they don’t like the decision, at least we made a decision,” Hobbie said.  A major aspect of “streamlining” such permitting is developing a good schedule initially and making sure all stakeholders, including the applicant, stick to it, he added.  The mine would be on land owned by The Kuskowkim Corp., the area Alaska Native village corporation and Calista Corp., the regional Native corporation, owns the subsurface mineral rights.  Calista CEO Andrew Guy said in an interview that the company supports Donlin largely because its leadership has come to trust the environmental review process despite the fact that some of its shareholders — and local tribal governments — oppose the project because of concerns it could harm subsistence resources, particularly salmon in the Kuskokwim.  “We selected certain lands for development purposes but we did not get into that for a long time, primarily because of concerns to the environment and our people’s reliance on subsistence to make a living. But we saw how (the National Environmental Policy Act) affected and impacted mining operations; we saw how NEPA really worked and that’s when our board and management decided that we’ve seen enough of the positive impacts that NEPA has on the process that, yes, now it’s time for us to fulfill (the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act’s) mandate to provide the work and jobs to our shareholders,” Guy said.  He said that Calista shareholders would benefit not only through mineral royalty revenues to the company but also through work its subsidiary companies would do at the mine.  The Yukon-Kuskokwim River Alliance and the tribal government in the city of Bethel, Orutsararmiut Native Council, said in a statement they are “outraged” by the decision. The groups said the agencies ignored voices from the region and could hurt wildlife and subsistence hunters and fishermen.  Guy additionally stressed that Donlin would lay the groundwork for lower-cost energy and technology infrastructure by bringing natural gas and fiber-optic cable to the region. Calista, in concert with the state and federal governments, could eventually expand that infrastructure to nearby villages he said.  While the EIS decision is a milestone for Donlin, the project is far from being green-lighted.  In addition to the record of decision, the company still has to secure numerous other state and federal permits, among them approvals for water discharge, waste management and a tailings dam safety permit that will eventually require additional geotechnical drilling, according to Parkan.  After the permits are secured company leaders will reevaluate the project’s economics and begin the search for financing if the project pencils out.  Editor's note: This story has been updated from the original version to include Rick Parkan's comments about the current price of gold and its impact on the project. Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]  

Supreme Court parses, approves salmon habitat measure for ballot

The Alaska Supreme Court approved most, but not all, of the contentious ballot initiative aimed at strengthening the state’s salmon habitat protections in a decision issued Wednesday morning, meaning the initiative will be on the November ballot sans one key provision. The five-member court unanimously ruled that language in the proposed law change requiring the Department of Fish and Game Commissioner to deny permit applications for development in salmon habitat if the activity were deemed to have a “significant adverse effect” is an unconstitutional limitation on the Legislature’s authority to appropriate the state’s resources. That’s because the language would mandate the state to value anadromous fish habitat over other resources, according to the justices — a balancing act that the Alaska Constitution specifically reserves for the Legislature. “(W)here a project like a mine or a hydroelectric dam would permanently, and perhaps irreversibly, displace fish habitat, there is no reasonable interpretation under which that habitat would not suffer ‘substantial damage’ as the initiative defines it,” the 48-page opinion states. “If the habitat has been permanently displaced, it cannot be ‘likely’ for that habitat to be restored within a ‘reasonable period,’ because it will never be restored.” On Oct. 9, 2017, Superior Court Judge Mark Rindner overturned Mallott's Sept. 12 rejection of the initiative petition, which was based on the Department of Law’s determination that it is unconstitutional. The Supreme Court decision remands the case back to Rindner, who is to direct Mallott and the Division of Elections to put the initiative on the Nov. 6 ballots. Ryan Schryver, director of the nonprofit leading the initiative effort Stand for Salmon, said in a brief interview that the group is naturally disappointed that the court struck a small but significant provision of the law change. However, Schryver stressed the group is happy that, “The heart and soul of what we’re trying to do remains intact.” He said the initiative is still fundamentally about making sure the state’s economically and culturally important salmon resources are protected while assuring industry has clear and predictable development standards. Stand for Alaska, a counter-campaign supported by the state’s oil and mining industries as well as Alaska’s Native regional corporations with the exception of Bristol Bay Native Corp., which has taken a neutral stance on the initiative, said in a prepared statement that the courts decision to strike a portion of Ballot Measure 1 “validates just how flawed and poorly crafted the measure is.” “Even with today’s changes, this measure still replaces our science-based habitat management system with untested regulations that will result in job loss and kill current and future, vital projects,” the statement reads. “Stand for Alaska remains strongly opposed to the misguided measure that threatens our jobs, communities and way of life.” Justice Daniel Winfree agreed the “significant adverse effect” language needed to be struck for the initiative to comply with the Constitution, but he partially dissented with the overall ruling because he doesn’t believe it went far enough. According to Winfree’s dissenting opinion, there is not reasonable way to interpret the habitat protections and mitigation requirements that would not effect a resource appropriation. “Where the court and I diverge is with other (initiative) provisions that, while not explicitly prohibiting the Legislature from allocating anadromous fish habitat, would have the same practical effect,” he wrote. Stand for Salmon representatives insist the initiative would mainly codify best practices Fish and Game currently uses in evaluating development permits in salmon habitat and would protect those actions from being degraded by political influence. Stand for Alaska alleges the group is attempting to severely restrict, if not altogether stop, substantive development statewide. Attorney Valerie Brown, who argued on behalf of Stand for Salmon in front of the court, emphasized that provisions detailing what constitutes healthy salmon habitat remain intact after the ruling. Those provisions deal with water quality, maintaining stream flows and require any mitigation to offset unavoidable habitat damage be done within the impacted water body. “The habitat standards are a huge improvement over current law because they are actual standards Fish and Game must apply when they’re considering permits, so it’s definitely a step in the right direction,” Brown said. Currently, Title 16, the state’s anadromous fish habitat permitting statute, directs the ADFG commissioner to issue a development permit as long as a project provides “proper protection of fish and game.” The initiative sponsors contend that is far too vague and an update is needed to just define what “proper protection” means. In early 2017, Alaska Board of Fisheries chair John Jensen sent a letter to legislative leaders urging them to update Title 16 with opportunities for public involvement in permit application reviews and enforceable development standards. Brown also noted that other parts of the proposal dealing with public process were not impacted by the court’s decision. “One of the other provisions that will definitely go forward that is a huge leap forward over current law is the provisions for public notice and public comment on large projects that could cause a lot of harm to salmon habitat. This will be first time we have a chance to participate in those.” The fact that salmon habitat permits are one of the only environmental permits the state issues without notifying the public has been a rallying point for initiative supporters. While state Department of Law attorneys originally argued the provisions of the initiative were too intertwined to sever without wholly discarding it, Attorney General Jahna Lindemuth said in a formal statement that the court confirmed Law’s understanding of the powers and limitations of a citizens’ initiative in the state Constitution. “That limitation extends to the Legislature’s power to allocate the state’s resources — including fisheries and waters — among competing uses,” Lindemuth said. She also thanked the court for its unexpectedly quick ruling on the case, which will provide the Division of Elections additional time to prepare ballot materials in advance of the November election. The state had asked the court for a ruling by early September, just ahead of a deadline for the Division of Elections to have general election information ready to distribute to voters. The Wednesday morning release of the ruling also caught folks involved in the case by surprise. The court has historically handed down its opinions on Fridays, almost without exception.   Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

Three years after Colorado mine spill, victims awaiting payment

DENVER (AP) — Three years after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency triggered a massive mine spill that polluted rivers in three states, the federal government still has not repaid any of the victims for the millions of dollars in economic damage they claimed. The EPA said it is making progress on reviewing about 380 claims for lost income, fallen property values and other losses from the 2015 spill at the Gold King Mine in southwestern Colorado. But the agency has not said when it might finish the review or when anyone might be paid. Some business owners say they feel misled and doubt they’ll ever be compensated. Lawmakers are impatient. “The EPA’s response to the Gold King Mine spill has been unacceptable,” New Mexico Democratic Rep. Ben Ray Lujan said Friday. “This spill had devastating consequences for Navajo Nation and northwestern New Mexico, spilling millions of gallons of toxic, contaminated wastewater.” An EPA-led contractor crew was doing excavation work at the entrance to the Gold King near Silverton, Colorado, on Aug. 5, 2015, when workers inadvertently unleashed 3 million gallons of wastewater pent up inside the mine. The water sent a yellow-orange plume of pollution into rivers in Colorado, New Mexico and Utah. The Navajo Nation and other tribal lands were also affected. The EPA estimated the water carried nearly 540 U.S. tons of metals, mostly iron and aluminum. Farmers, rafting companies, fishing guides, homeowners and others filed for about $318 million in economic losses, according to EPA documents reviewed by The Associated Press. State, tribal and local governments said their losses were higher. “We weren’t asking for the sky. We were asking for what we lost,” said John Flick, co-owner of Duranglers, a fishing guide service and store in Durango, Colorado, about 50 miles downstream from Silverton. Flick and his partner, Tom Knopick, filed a claim for about $98,000 in lost income from guiding and retail sales when authorities put the rivers off-limits for several days. “Even if we’d got half of that, we’d have been happy. We got nothing,” Flick said. The EPA paid out millions of dollars to state, tribal and local governments for the cost of responding to the spill and for water tests. But the Obama administration, which was in charge at the time of the spill, said in January 2017 it could not pay for any economic damages. The administration cited sovereign immunity, which prohibits most lawsuits against the government. That provoked a furious political backlash, and the new Trump administration said it would reconsider. One year ago, then-EPA chief Scott Pruitt visited the Gold King mine and promised to review all the claims. “As far as I can tell, that was just talk,” said Alex Mickel, co-owner of Mild to Wild Rafting, which offers float trips and four-wheel-drive tours in Durango and in Moab, Utah. Mickel filed a claim but declined say how much. He said the EPA has never acknowledged getting it. He said he feels misled by both the Obama and Trump administrations. Under Obama, the EPA promised to compensate for the damage. ”’We’re going to make people whole,’ that was their words,” Mickel said. Pruitt resigned amid a storm of ethics scandals in July, and the EPA is regrouping under acting chief Andrew Wheeler. But the review is making headway, agency spokesman James Hewitt said. The EPA sent letters in June to 54 people who filed claims, or to their attorneys, asking for clarification or more information, Hewitt said in an email to the AP Thursday. Only a few have responded, he said. John Swartout, a policy adviser to Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, said he has been brief by the EPA on the review and believes the agency is making progress, but “it’s slow going.” The compensation requests were submitted under the Federal Tort Claims Act, which allows people and businesses to ask the federal government to repay them for economic losses and injuries caused by negligence or wrongful action by federal employees. Separate from the tort claims, at least four lawsuits have been filed against the EPA over the spill. Utah is seeking $1.9 billion, the Navajo Nation $162 million and the state of New Mexico $130 million. About a dozen New Mexico residents also sued, seeking a combined $120 million. The lawsuits are pending in federal court in Albuquerque, N.M.

Alaska remains potential source for critical rare earth elements

Rare earth elements really aren’t that rare; they’re just rarely mined. Many in Washington, D.C., particularly those in the Defense Department, see this as a major looming issue. That’s because the Mountain Pass mine just on the California side of the border with Nevada southwest of Las Vegas closed in 2015 when its operator went bankrupt. It was the last producing rare earths mine in the country. The nation’s supply of these 17 often hard-to-pronounce metals now comes from France, Estonia, Japan and China, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Most troubling for some is the fact that China dominates the world’s rare earth elements supply. Sen. Lisa Murkowski remarked during a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing she held July 17 on domestic mineral security that China has leveraged its dominance in rare earth production in the past and could do it again at a time when the country is in a tit-for-tat trade dispute with the U.S. “My concern, among many concerns, is if China ultimately responds to tariffs by restricting our supply of rare earths, or any number of other minerals, the U.S. could be in serious trouble. We’ve heard testimony in the past about the dangers of the concentration of supply from a handful of countries that control the supply chain,” said Murkowski, who chairs the Energy and Natural Resources Committee. “I’m hopeful that we aren’t about to experience those dangers firsthand and will continue to urge action to reduce this significant vulnerability.” In 2010, China placed an embargo on all rare earths the country was exporting to Japan in retaliation for actions against the crew of a Chinese trawler Japanese officials contended was fishing illegally in the country’s waters. China’s dominance in rare earth markets can make pricing and production data hard to obtain, but it is generally believed the country currently produces roughly 90 percent or more of the world’s rare earths. Murkowski also noted her state could go a long way towards alleviating the country’s dependence on imported rare earth elements, and there is still movement toward development in Ketchikan by Nova Scotia-based Ucore. In December President Donald Trump issued an executive order directing federal agencies to prioritize strategies to reduce U.S. dependence on imports of critical minerals. In May the Interior Department responded with a list of 35 minerals deemed “critical” for their economic importance which also have domestic supply vulnerabilities. The entire rare earths group made the list along with other more common metals such as aluminum, tungsten, cobalt and others. Rare earths are essential in the production of cell phones, hard drives, automobile catalytic converters and medical and military technologies. USGS Alaska Research Geologist Doug Kreiner said in an interview that rare earths are so vital to modern-day products because there are no known substitutes. Heavy rare earths — such as europium, terbium, and ytterbium with a greater atomic weight — are used in products that rely on high-temperature magnets. More common lighter rare earths are used in a plethora of applications including LED displays, according to Kreiner. And demand for them will continue to grow as the world moves towards more hybrid and electric vehicles with high-performance lithium-ion batteries that also contain rare earths, he said. Rare earths in Last Frontier As seems to be the case with most mineral commodities, Alaska holds its own rare earth resources. The most notable deposit is the Bokan Mountain prospect that Nova Scotia-based Ucore Rare Metals Inc. explored until 2015. The prospect on southern Prince of Wales Island is approximately 40 percent heavy rare earths, according to Ucore, which are the hardest to come by. Overall, it holds roughly 5 million tons of ore with rare earth concentrations of 0.65 percent, according to the company. Kreiner said rare earths occur across the state but the viability of mining them other places is largely unknown simply because they haven’t been explored. “Bokan Mountain is the only quote-unquote deposit in Alaska. So whether it’s a deposit or an occurrence is really an economic definition. Basically, it becomes a deposit when it’s concentrated to the point that it can be extracted,” he said. Ucore also holds rights to the Ruby rare earths prospect just north of the Yukon River in the Interior region along the Dalton Highway. Kreiner said concentrations of rare earths aren’t often related to deposits of other commonly mined metals, but they can at times be detected in precious metal ores. The Ruby batholith is in the Ray Mountains, which has large sheets of loose sediments up to 325 feet thick that contain rare earths. Heavy minerals are more concentrated in lower terrain between the Ray Mountains and the Fort Hamlin Hills to the east, according to Ucore. There are other potential rare earth belts extending from near Nome on the southern Seward Peninsula north and east to the southern flank of the Brooks Range as well as in the Porcupine River drainage of Northeast Alaska, Kreiner said. Another large rare earth belt runs from the upper Tanana River west and south through the Alaska Range to the Kuskokwim River basin in Western Alaska. “The hot spots that were identified in our analysis, whether or not they’re prospective we really don’t know because there just hasn’t been a lot of work done out there,” he said. “Geologically speaking I think there are a lot of areas that are prospective for rare earths in the U.S. I think it’s a matter of the geology and finding the systems that are economically exploitable.” Kreiner added that he attributes the lack of domestic rare earths production simply to the recent nature of their demand. “Rare earth elements are a relatively new focus given the applications, particularly high-end technologies and medical science, defense mechanisms and the sort,” he said. Focus shifts for Ucore A 2015 collapse in rare earth prices put Bokan Mountain exploration and development on hold, Ucore Vice President Randy MacGillivray said in an interview, but that hasn’t stopped the company’s work in Alaska. Ucore has shifted its focus to developing a rare earths separation plant that the company plans to locate in Ketchikan. “We know there’s a qualified workforce in Ketchikan and we have a lot of Alaskan support, both from the state and federally, so honestly Ketchikan is a great choice for us on multiple levels,” MacGillivray said. Ucore’s plan is to construct the metal refinement plant, estimated at $25 million, over the next couple years and get it up and running sometime in 2020. Ketchikan’s coastal location allows for easy transport of feedstock via shipping containers and further makes sense given its proximity to Bokan Mountain, according to MacGillivray. “(The plant) will be a significant step forward to being able to ultimately build the mine on Prince of Wales Island because a segment of that construction would have already been financed and constructed; so it’s an enhancement to the project for sure,” he said. In 2014 the Legislature authorized the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority to finance up to $145 million of the development costs at Bokan, which Ucore has pegged at about $220 million overall. MacGillivray said AIDEA could be involved in financing the plant, which the company is calling its “specialty metals complex.” Ucore also has a pilot rare earths separation facility just outside of Salt Lake City. The company initially plans to start processing 1,000 to 2,000 tons of ore concentrate per year — eventually ramping up to double the processing quantities. MacGillivray said the concentrate would likely be re-leached in Ketchikan before being subjected to molecular recognition separation technology at the facility. “We would then produce individual oxides and we are currently looking at the potential to produce individual rare earth metals at the facility, which would be a value-added product,” he said. The plant is likely to start with about 10 employees and the workforce could grow to about 25 as production grows. Ucore leaders are currently in early-stage discussions with officials at mines that have byproduct ore containing rare earths but are focused on other metals as well as looking at direct sourcing options, he said.

State officials cite costs, complications of initiative

State agency officials attempted to predict the impacts to the state of a pending fish habitat ballot measure during a July 20 Senate State Affairs Committee hearing. Ballot Measure 1, known as the “Yes for Salmon” initiative, would bolster the Department of Fish and Game’s statutory requirements for approving development activity permits in anadromous fish habitat areas as well as the department’s authority to enforce the stipulations of those permits. Championed by the Anchorage-based nonprofit Stand for Salmon, the initiative is scheduled to be on the general election ballot in November depending on the outcome of an Alaska Supreme Court ruling to determine its constitutionality. Gov. Bill Walker’s administration has argued that the measure is an unconstitutional usurpation of the Legislature’s authority to appropriate resources. The court is expected to rule on the constitutional question by early September to provide the Division of Elections time to prepare accurate materials for voters. On a high level Ballot Measure 1 would establish two tiers of permit application reviews. “Minor” habitat permits could be issued quickly and generally for projects deemed to have an insignificant impact on salmon waters. “Major” permits for larger projects such as mines, dams and anything determined to potentially have a significant impact on salmon-bearing waters would require the project sponsor to prove the project would not damage salmon habitat. Additionally, the project sponsor would have to prove that impacted waters are not salmon habitat during any stage of the fish life cycle if the waters are connected to proven salmon habitat in any way but not yet listed in the state’s Anadromous Waters Catalog. The initiative also states that mitigation measures to offset the impact at the development site may not be done by enhancing or preserving habitat on other waters, which is a practice allowed now and is what’s proposed for the Donlin mine project. On one level, Ballot Measure 1 would cost the state about $3 million per year in the near term to implement its changes, according to estimates in an Office of Management and Budget report. Not surprisingly, much of that would be in Fish and Game’s budget for developing updated regulations and guidance documents. ADFG Commissioner Sam Cotten said it would likely cost the department $1.3 million per year over five years to implement the law changes. The Department of Transportation, which is one of the most frequent applicants for fish habitat permits, would need another roughly $950,000 per year to comply with the more stringent fish habitat requirements, according to department leaders. The departments of Environmental Conservation and Law would each need up to an additional $450,000 per year to possibly broaden water quality standards currently required for discharges in fish spawning areas and enforcing new civil penalties for violating fish habitat permit terms. DOT Environmental Program Manager Ben White said the department would need to add a handful of hydrologists and hydraulic engineers to its current environmental permitting team. “We are committed to environmental stewardship as a department and really work very hard, in this particular instance, to support healthy salmon populations,” DOT Commissioner Marc Luiken said to the committee. While projecting fiscal impacts is an exercise agency staff are accustomed to — it is done for the majority of proposed legislation — the Republicans on the committee in opposition to the initiative posed increasingly speculative scenarios they are concerned about the initiative impacting while questioning administration officials. Walker, who is running for reelection, has expressed his opposition to Ballot Measure 1 as a policy while the Department of Law is challenging its constitutionality. At the same time, Civil Law Division Director Joanne Grace said the Department of Law has advised Walker’s commissioner’s to remain objective on the initiative. Emily Anderson, an attorney for Stand for Salmon, said the discussion in the hearing was premature because agency officials were asked to outline the impacts of the potential law change before the Supreme Court, which could also amend the initiative, has made its decision. Rather than wholly approving or rejecting the initiative, the Supreme Court could strike specific provisions of the proposal it feels are unconstitutional and allow the remainder of it to appear on the ballot if the general intent of the sponsors remains intact. Sen. John Coghill, R-Fairbanks, asked if language in the initiative that would extend fish habitat permit reviews into the riparian area near the shoreline of a water body could be used to preclude development in entire floodplains, such as the one his hometown is built on. Sen. Cathy Giessel, R-Anchorage, questioned whether fire departments could be prevented from filling their tanker trucks from salmon streams and if DOT would not be allowed to use rip-rap when dealing with emergency flood and erosion situations that can occur, particularly along Alaska’s large glacial rivers. Agency officials largely obliged the speculation, acknowledging there is a possibility the circumstances raised could be impacted because of the vague language of the initiative. DOT’s White said the agency could be forced to find alternatives to traditional rock rip-rap for erosion control and that temporary stream diversions — often used in culvert and bridge work — could be challenged. Habitat Division Biologist Ron Benkert said in an interview that Fish and Game already discourages the use of rock rip-rap when other bioengineered solutions such as root wads or other forms of woody vegetation can be used for erosion control, noting that in the most critical areas and emergency situations the department concedes to the use of rip-rap at the request of DOT and others. He also said large, fast rivers such as the Matanuska that regularly cause significant damage are primarily migration corridors for salmon and other species that use headwaters and tributaries for spawning and rearing, so the impact of bank stabilization efforts to critical habitat is limited most times. “Really high velocity — it’s just not a great place for fish to hang out,” Benkert said. Anderson said the initiative makes no changes to the ability for officials to respond to emergencies. She stressed in response to other concerns about the purview of the habitat permits that the initiative is limited to freshwater, as is the case today. Anderson said during an editorial board meeting with the Journal and Anchorage Daily News on July 19 that the initiative is primarily aimed at solidifying scientific best practices and guidelines Fish and Game currently uses in regulation and law to insulate the permitting process from political influence. Initiative sponsor and commercial fishermen Mike Wood has said the objective of the campaign is to fortify the state’s fish protections while the Environmental Protection Agency is scaling back its wetlands protections in the state, for example. Currently, Title 16, the state’s anadromous fish habitat permitting statute, directs the ADFG commissioner to issue a development permit as long as a project provides “proper protection of fish and game.” The initiative sponsors contend that is far too vague and an update is needed to just define what “proper protection” means. In early 2017, Alaska Board of Fisheries chair John Jensen sent a letter to legislative leaders urging them to update Title 16 with opportunities for public involvement in permit application reviews and enforceable development standards. The law now does not allow for public comment nor does it require Fish and Game to issue a public notice indicating the Habitat Division is adjudicating a permit application. The Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly also unanimously passed a resolution in 2016 supporting an update to Title 16 to further protect fish habitat. DNR Project Management Associate Director Kyle Moselle said in response to questions that the vast majority of the permits DNR and DEC issue for large development projects already require public notice and comment periods, which would be a fundamental addition to the anadromous fish habitat permit process under the proposal. Giessel said in an email that the public should be included in matters involving public resources and that is why the comment periods and notices are required for other land and water use and quality permits. “If the issue surrounding this initiative is one of requiring an opportunity for Alaskans to comment and be involved on fish habitat permits, that is one matter. But proposing an up or down, take it or leave it, wholesale rewrite of our fish laws in November is another thing altogether,” Giessel said. It was also unclear from the hearing when existing developments with fish habitat permits already in hand would be subject to the new permitting system. Benkert said in an interview that while the department feels this is a “gray area” in the law, generally an existing operation would be grandfathered in until additional authorizations are needed for expansion plans or a fish habitat permit renewal. Most fish habitat permits are valid for two- to five-year periods before they need to be renewed. “It’s kind of a check so we can just come back and see if what we had permitted five years ago is still actually being done,” Benkert described. Stand for Salmon’s Anderson said worries about renewing permits for existing facilities “have been blown out of proportion” and re-upping authorizations should not be more difficult under the initiative. “There’s a whole class of facilities that never had a fish habitat permit and won’t require one; (they) are not only not affected by this but never will be affected by this,” she said. “Then there’s a whole class of facilities that did require a fish habitat permit but that habitat is no longer in existence, therefore you don’t need a new fish habitat permit and it never will be contemplated because there is no fish habitat left to get a new permit for.” White also said DOT is concerned the initiative could lead to more National Environmental Policy Act reviews for work now deemed to have a de minimis environmental impact because it prohibits Fish and Game from allowing activities that have a “significant adverse effect” on fish habitat. DOT regularly conducts work that has some impact on fish habitat, according to White. He said in an email that the concern specifically relates to many of the projects the department executes that are at least partially funded with federal money. Anderson and other initiative supporters insist it is not intended to prohibit unavoidable small or temporary impacts as many fear, which is why it calls for “minimizing” impacts if avoiding them is not practical. She also strongly contended that White “is just wrong” in his characterization of how it could lead to more projects being subject to NEPA and DOT is conflating the state and federal permitting systems. “NEPA is triggered by a federal action that would have significant adverse effects. It is not triggered by state laws,” Anderson said. Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

Walker asks Corps to suspend Pebble permitting

JUNEAU (AP) — Alaska Gov. Bill Walker has asked the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to suspend its environmental review of a proposed copper-and-gold mine near a major salmon fishery, saying he questions whether the project is ready to move forward. Walker's letter to the corps, also signed by Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott, said the group seeking to develop the mine, the Pebble Limited Partnership, has yet to show that it has proposed a "feasible and realistic project." Tom Collier, CEO of the Pebble partnership, called the request a stall tactic that he would expect from anti-development groups but not from the governor. Walker fails to make a compelling case for halting the current process, he said. "It is this type of behavior that makes many in the global investment community reluctant to invest in Alaska," Collier said in a statement. The project, located in Alaska's Bristol Bay region, has been the subject of heated debate for years. Bristol Bay produces about half of the world's sockeye salmon. The Pebble partnership in December applied for a permit with the corps. The corps recently concluded a comment period that allowed people to share their views, cite any concerns and offer suggestions on the scope of the review. The Alaska Department of Natural Resources submitted comments Friday, which is also when Walker and Mallott submitted their letter. Critics have complained about the corps' process; Chip Treinen, with Commercial Fishermen for Bristol Bay, said in a recent statement that the corps is fast-tracking Pebble's permit application and worried the process was tilted in Pebble's favor. The corps had not yet responded to Walker's request. Mike Heatwole, a Pebble spokesman, said Pebble believes its project is technically, environmentally and economically feasible. Review processes like the corps' will look at whether Pebble's assumptions, particularly on technical and environmental issues, are correct, he said Monday. Canada-based Northern Dynasty Minerals Ltd., which owns the Pebble partnership, has been looking for a partner since Anglo American PLC announced it was pulling out in 2013. Canada-based First Quantum Minerals Ltd., courted as a potential investor, backed away from the project in May, though offered no public comment at the time as to why. Heatwole said there has been "active interest" as Pebble seeks a new partner. "And when we have something to share I certainly look forward to doing that," he said.  

Pages

Subscribe to RSS - Mining