Mining

Former EPA biologist North’s whereabouts still unknown

Where in the world is Phillip North? The former Environmental Protection Agency biologist is scheduled to be deposed by Pebble Limited Partnership and EPA attorneys Nov. 12 in Anchorage; however his whereabouts are unknown to both sides. North is seen as a key witness in Pebble’s lawsuit against the EPA. In the lawsuit filed last year, Pebble contends the agency colluded with Alaska Native groups and other mine opponents while drafting the Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment. The assessment is the scientific basis for the EPA’s pending Clean Water Act Section 404(c) action, which would preemptively block large-scale mining in the Bristol Bay region. North, who retired from the EPA in 2013, worked extensively on drafting the 1,000-plus page assessment, which was finalized early in 2014. The EPA contends Pebble had the same access to agency officials as anyone else with interest in the Bristol Bay Assessment, and that any actions that potentially violated federal public meeting and objectivity laws were incidental. U.S. Alaska District Court Judge H. Russel Holland halted the EPA’s Section 404(c) proceedings with an injunction last November, until the suit is resolved. In his recent subpoena order, Holland ordered Pebble to offer up $2,400 to cover North’s travel expenses to Anchorage; Pebble attorneys suggested $1,500 in their motion to subpoena. He is believed to be New Zealand or Australia. Holland also wrote that he believes the EPA should be as vested as Pebble in hearing North’s testimony to resolve speculation about what went on during the assessment process. Responsive documents to Pebble’s Freedom of Information Act requests have made it clear North drafted documents on a private computer that were not forwarded to EPA systems and encrypted documents on a thumb drive that EPA has not been able to access, according to Holland. Pebble spokesman Mike Heatwole wrote in an email that the company does not know much about North’s location and as a result Pebble may seek to delay the Nov. 12 deposition. EPA Region 10 said in a formal statement that, “as with other previous EPA employees, the agency has no information or comment on his location.” In an interview with the Redoubt Reporter published July 17, 2013, North said he planned on sailing around the world with his family after his retirement. He is also quoted as supporting the EPA’s then imagined Section 404(c) action to protect Bristol Bay’s world-renowned salmon runs. Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

NANA makes gold strike; work continues amid price slump

Things aren’t great for Alaska’s miners right now, but despite the extended downturn in metals prices some explorers are pressing ahead. NANA Regional Corp., which conducted its own exploration, announced what it termed a “significant” new gold discovery on state lands on the eastern Seward Peninsula. However, the overall number of new “grassroots” exploration projects is sharply down this year compared with previous years, and the suppliers and contractors who support explorers are feeling the effects. There was some good news for NANA, however. The corporation conducted a small program of six holes drilled totaling 3,100 feet. There were good results in the mineralization tested. One hole showed grades of 20.5 grams per ton, or gpt, of gold; 92 gpt of silver; 1.79 percent zinc and 2.63 percent lead. There was also thin, high-grade interval of 175 gpt gold and 470 gpt silver. Lance Miller, NANA’s vice president for natural resources, said the mineral values are encouraging. “With this summer’s drilling we have identified the lode source for the placer gold found in the northern Seward Peninsula area,” he said. Information from the drilling combined with geologic and soil sampling by NANA over several previous seasons have identified a belt of mineralization along a 40-mile trend, he said. The Kotzebue-based Alaska Native regional corporation is also involved in another exploration project, this one in the Ambler Mining District in the upper Kobuk River area in an alliance with NovaCopper Resources, an exploration company. NovaCopper has made significant high-value copper discoveries at the Arctic deposit in the area, where it holds mining claims. NANA owns lands in the region including at Bornite, another known copper discovery. The two companies are working together on exploration on both prospects, which NANA having an option to buy into Arctic and NovaCopper an option to buy into Bornite. In 2015, NovaCopper drilled 14 test holes at Arctic, extracting 3,056 meters of core in a $5.5 million program. The objective was to test the continuity of high-grade ore zones identified at Arctic, the company said in a press release. To date, NovaCopper and its predecessor company, NovaGold, have drilled 43 core holes in addition to 92 holes drilled by the previous owner, Kennecott. Indicated resources (measured by drilling) are estimated at 23.8 million tonnes and an additional 3.4 million tonnes of inferred, or estimated, resources. In the indicated resource category the metal values were measured at 3.26 percent copper; 0.71 gpt of gold; 53.2 gpt of silver; 0.76 percent lead and 4.45 percent zinc. NovaCopper also announced in July that it was beginning work on the pre-feasibility study of the Arctic deposit, an important step in the development program. Work on that is expected to take two to three years. Other mines progressing Exploration aside, there are a number of projects where discoveries have been made that are gradually working their way through the web of regulatory approvals. The big Donlin Gold mine in the mid-Kuskokwim River region, for example, may publish its long-awaited draft environmental impact statement by the end of 2015. Assuming regulatory hurdles are cleared, Barrick Gold and NovaGold Resources, the developers, must still make a decision to develop the mine. That is of real interest to Calista Corp., the Alaska Native regional corporation that owns mineral rights, and The Kuskokwim Corp., owned by local village corporations, which holds the surface lands. It was exploration by Calista’s geologists that led to the gold discovery although there had long been placer mining in the area. Another project in an advanced stage of development planning is International Tower Hills’ Livengood gold project north of Fairbanks. The gold resource is large and well-defined, but a construction decision will likely require an upturn in gold prices. The company is meanwhile working on ways to reduce costs. Early cost studies showed the project, as designed, would not be viable at current gold prices. “We’re still in the optimization stage, working to bring capital and operating costs down to where the project would be viable at lower prices,” said ITH spokesman Rick Soley. Meanwhile, environmental baseline monitoring and some other work continues at the mine site as well as metallurgical analyses at other locations, he said. If it is developed, Livengood would be a surface mine mining low-grade ore similar to Fort Knox, a producing mine also near Fairbanks, but larger. It would likely employ over 400 in operation, Soley said. Two Southeast mines in advanced stages of exploration and development planning include Bokan Mountain, a rare earths project, and Niblack, a multi-metals discovery. More ore reserves were discovered at Bokan Mountain this year and Niblack continues to work on a plan to process is ore in nearby Ketchikan, which would be an important economic boost for that community. Heatherdale Resources Ltd. is developing Niblack. Bokan is being developed by Ucore Rare Metals Inc. In 2014 the company added 1.04 million tons of ore to its resource base through deeper exploration drilling at the prospect. The company previously reported 4.88 million tons of resources. The large Pebble project near Iliamna is in a holding pattern. The company, Pebble Partnership, is in litigation against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency over the agency’s attempt to preempt large mines in the Bristol Bay region. Improper procedures by EPA are being contested. If the lawsuit is won, or if a settlement is reached, Pebble may be allowed to apply to state and regulatory agencies for its permits. That would allow for a mine development plan to be made available to the public. Operating mines Meanwhile, the state’s operating mines are doing well. Near Juneau, the Greens Creek Mine, operated by Hecla Mining Co., is projected to produce 7.3 million ounces of silver, down somewhat from 7.8 million ounces in 2014. The mine holds substantial silver, gold and lead reserves and resources. An aggressive, three-rig drilling program was conducted in 2015, budgeted at $5.8 million. Over the last 11 years drilling efforts have replaced or added to resources at the mine. North of Juneau, at Berner’s Bay, the Kensington Mine continues at a steady production rate. Ore production totaled 165,198 tons in the third quarter of 2015 with 28,688 ounces of gold produced, compared with 145,097 tons of ore mine in third quarter 2014 and 30,773 ounces of gold produced. Kensington is operated by Coeur Alaska Inc. At the large Fort Knox surface mine near Fairbanks, Kinross Gold Corp. is on target to produce about the same amount of gold as in 2014, which was 379,064 ounces. The company is adding equipment, commissioning four new 793F haul trucks and completing a booster pump station in the mine process facilities. Coal production will be down in 2015 at the Usibelli mine at Healy, the state’s only producing coalmine, because of reductions in exports. Usibelli Mine Inc. will produce about 1.2 million tons of coal this year, down from almost two million tons per year a few years ago when export markets were stronger. Demand from Usibelli’s core Alaska markets, six Interior Alaska coal-fueled power plants, will hold steady or even increase somewhat when Golden Valley Electric Assoc.’s new Healy 2 power plant becomes fully operational in 2016.

State trust appeals DNR decision on Chuitna water reservation

It seems nobody likes the Alaska Department of Natural Resources’ most recent Chuitna mine decision, including a state authority it oversees. The Alaska Department of Law filed an appeal on behalf of the Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority against the Department of Natural Resource’s Oct. 8 decision to grant an in-stream flow reservation, or IFR, to Chuitna Citizens Coalition for the lower section of Middle Creek. PacRim itself also filed an appeal of DNR’s decision, along with several industry and private groups. Chuitna Citizens Coalition has not filed an appeal, though members were unhappy with the Oct. 8 decision as well for not granting its two other in-stream reservation requests. The period for appeals is now closed. Middle Creek is part of the watershed for a proposed coal mine, and an integral part of the drainage process necessary to complete the mine. The bulk of the proposed mine’s land is owned by the trust. The Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority was established in 1956 and placed under the Department of Natural Resources’ authority after statehood in 1959. The U.S. Congress gifted it one million acres of land to be used for developing resources for Alaskans with mental health issues. The trust currently has roughly 80,000 such beneficiaries. John Morrison, the acting executive director for the trust’s land management office, said the trust is effectively a third party in the dispute with only a ceremonial connection to DNR, though it may not appear that way to an outsider. “It’s really kind of a relic of the settlement that we’re here,” said Morrison. “In that light, we use the attorney general’s office. Our only interaction with the process is the same as any other third party. We act like a private land owner.” Potentially, an administrative hearing between the trust and DNR would have to be settled with both parties being represented by the Alaska Department of Law. Because the trust typically uses DNR’s attorney, it has had to switch to Assistant Attorney General Dario Borghesan within the Department of Law,. Few parties appear satisfied with DNR. The coalition characterized DNR’s decision as a “dodge,” and a concession to the coal industry at the expense of Alaska salmon, as it only granted the lower reach IFR.  “This decision doesn’t do enough to protect fish in the Chuitna River because it doesn’t keep water flowing in the salmon-spawning areas of Middle Creek,” said Ron Burnett, a Beluga homeowner and founding member of the Chuitna Citizens Coalition, in a statement. The trust, which is overseen by the Department of Natural Resources, calls the DNR decision “arbitrary” in its appeal and a dangerous precedent for allowing private parties to derail resource development. The Chuitna Citizens Coalition IFR is the first granted to a private group, rather than state organizations. “(In-stream flow reservations) can also be misused to thwart or discourage responsible resource development in a state whose socio-economic well-being depends on it,” the appeal reads. “And overly expansive interpretation of AS.46.15.145 could jeopardize development across Alaska and, with it, the trust’s ability to provide for its beneficiaries.” The trust argues the Chuitna Citizens Coalition IFR could prevent the mine and thus the $300 million of projected royalties PacRim would owe the trust over the course of the mine’s lifespan. The stream in question is located on land the trust has been endowed. Morrison said DNR’s decision ignores the trust’s freedom to manage its own land in accordance with the best public interest. Trust land, he argues, is not managed as state land and should not be subject to state management decision that contradicts the trust’s plans for best use. “The entire length of their IFR is located on trust land,” said Morrison. “I don’t know there’s been any consideration of how someone would manage or monitor this, if they need permission from us to do so. If this were Native corporation land, how would people react?” Furthermore, the trust believes DNR contradicts itself, allowing an IFR where it previously stated none are needed. “Even though the Division (of Land and Water) conceded that applicable regulation and permitting requirements processes ‘can adequately protect the water resources in Middle Creek,’” the appeal reads, it nonetheless found that there is a need for a reservation of water in the Lower Reach. Lastly, the trust argues DNR left unanswered questions about how the reservation will be administered. The trust does not know whether what measurement of IFR Chuitna Citizens Coalition will use, or how it will monitor the flows. The mine’s opponents boil the argument down being against the IFR is being against salmon habitats. “It’s surprising to see these corporations wanting to fight Alaskans who just want to keep water in the salmon stream,” said Bob Shavelson, executive director of Cook Inletkeeper. DJ Summers can be reached at [email protected]

DNR rules on Chuitna water rights petitions

Alaska salmon scored a partial victory on Oct. 6, but PacRim’s coal mine could still happen. The Alaska Department of Natural Resources granted an instream flow reservation, or IFR, to Chuitna Citizen’s Coalition for the for the lower section of Middle Creek. Middle Creek is part of the watershed for a proposed coal mine, and an integral part of the drainage process necessary to complete the mine. Only Chuitna Citizen’s Coalition’s IFR for the lower section was granted by DNR. The coalition had also filed IFR requests for the middle and upper reaches. The coalition characterizes DNR’s decision as a “dodge,” and a concession to the coal industry at the expense of Alaska salmon. “Make no mistake, DNR is saying that a potential coal strip mine is more valuable to the public than protecting wild salmon habitat,” said Ron Burnett, a Beluga homeowner and founding member of the Chuitna Citizens Coalition, in a statement. “This decision doesn’t do enough to protect fish in the Chuitna River because it doesn’t keep water flowing in the salmon-spawning areas of Middle Creek.” Indeed, the decision has little direct effect on PacRim’s operations. The mine will still go through the permitting process over the next several years. DNR’s Water Resources Section Chief David Schade said the decision can be easily misunderstood, and cautions that Chuitna Citizen’s Coalition’s IFR does not grant the organization direct control of Middle Creek’s lower reach, nor does it forbid the mine from operating. The coalition will not be able to simply exercise any litigation against PacRim, or refuse to let PacRim operate simply on principle. Rather, it gives an entry point for bringing complaints to DNR. Chuitna Citizen’s Coalition will be able to bring issues to DNR for adjudication if it has evidence that the completed mine will affect Middle Creek’s lower reach flow quality. “This is not at all an operational decision for the mine,” Schade said, “It is a limited decision for instream flow. This is not a traditional water right. It’s different with the reservation certificate. It gives Chuitna Citizen’s Coalition the right to request that DNR look into any activity of upstream users if there’s some evidence upstream activity is affecting the downstream flow. They don’t have administrative rights.” Schade does believe the decision will help protect the stream. “We will protect the stream through the permitting process,” Schade said. “Before there will be any kind of activity at a mine site, we will have gotten a bigger picture of the water rights.” This marks the first time DNR has granted an IFR to a private party. IFRs are typically reserved for state and local governments, rather than private citizens or coalitions, though certain isolated cases exist giving IFRs to non-governmental organizations, according to Trustees for Alaska legal director Valerie Brown. Both PacRim and the mine opponents had filed applications for water reservations. PacRim representatives objected to Chuitna Citizen’s Coalition’s IFR, arguing that opening IFRs to private entities will open a Pandora’s box of complications in the future. “The big issue for us is the policy issue, whether DNR should allow private citizens to take part in the permitting process,” said Eric Fjelstad, an attorney representing PacRim, during an August DNR hearing. “We think that answer should clearly be no.” Schade said he doesn’t agree with PacRim’s argument, and thinks water rights are inherently public and subject to DNR’s discretion. “Water is a public resource, and clearly delegated to DNR,” Schade said. “The rights of the holder of an (IFR) boils down to two things: the rights to be a party to any future reviews, and also have a right to ask DNR to adjudicate.” PacRim’s proposal has seen intense criticism from Alaskans, who have collectively sent more than 7,500 letters of public comment to the Department of Natural Resources opposing the mine and supporting the establishment of water rights aimed at salmon habitat preservation. The mine would require PacRim to dewater salmon habitat to dig a strip mine for low sulfur coal. DJ Summers can be reached at [email protected]

Cohen Group questions EPA’s Pebble process

Former Maine Senator and Defense Secretary William Cohen agrees with Pebble Limited Partnership on at least one point: the Environmental Protection Agency’s Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment is not an adequate document to replace the federal environmental permitting process. Pebble contracted Cohen to review the procedure the EPA used to develop the assessment, which is the document the agency has based its Clean Water Act Section 404(c) proposed determination on. Section 404(c) of the Clean Water Act gives the EPA authority to prohibit any development project that it deems would have an “unacceptable adverse effect” on wildlife and nearby water supplies. Cohen asserts in the opening pages of the 364-page report that the work undertaken by him and his firm The Cohen Group was conducted as an independent review of the Section 404(c) action that began last year and the preceding events. He also notes that the report is not meant to take a stance on the project, rather it is to evaluate the process the EPA used in regards to Pebble. He further stated that Pebble had no control over the conclusions he reached and was not allowed to perform any edits on the report. More than 60 people were interviewed as part of the review process, including three former EPA administrators. The EPA did not allow current agency personnel to be interviewed for the report, according to Cohen. He claims that the EPA’s use of the 404(c) authority “compounded the shortcomings” of the assessment, that it used assumptions based on economic analyses done for Pebble to draw its conclusions instead of actual permit applications. Cohen states that EPA personnel had “inappropriately close relationships with anti-mine advocates” while compiling the assessment, raising questions as to whether the agency “orchestrated the process to reach a predetermined outcome.” A key argument in Pebble’s second lawsuit against EPA is that agency personnel and mine opponents formed de-facto advisory committees, which left Pebble out of the loop while researching the Bristol Bay Assessment, and violated public processes intended to be objective. Pebble is the first time the EPA has used its 404(c) authority to attempt to block a project before Clean Water Act permit applications have been submitted to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which handles the permitting process for the agency. A U.S. District Court judge has stopped the 404(c) initiative at least temporarily while Pebble’s claims are heard in court. The EPA Inspector General is also examining the agency’s actions in regards to the Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment and Cohen calls for a Congressional Oversight Committee review. “This project is too important, for all stakeholders, to pilot a new, untested decision-making process,” Cohen wrote. “The fairest approach is to use the well-established permit/(National Environmental Policy Act) process, and I can find no valid reason why that process was not used.” He bases his conclusion at least partly on the EPA’s concession in comments to peer reviewers that gaps in the 1,100-page assessment that would be addressed in the NEPA process, which Pebble has not yet attempted to initiate. Sen. Lisa Murkowski criticized Pebble in 2013 for leaving Alaskans wondering if the controversial project would ever be built and called for the then-Northern Dynasty Minerals and Anglo American consortium to release more specifics about its plan. Pebble opponent groups were quick to criticize Cohen’s report after its release. Statements from Trout Unlimited Alaska, United Tribes of Bristol Bay and Commercial Fisherman for Bristol Bay all highlighted the fact that it was paid for by Pebble Limited Partnership. “The report wants Americans to believe that Pebble is the victim of an ‘unfair’ process. Let’s be clear, EPA’s process is one that is authorized by Congress under the Clean Water Act and is intended to be used in circumstances where mine activities will do insurmountable damage to the spawning rivers and habitat of this country’s last great sustainable wild resource: salmon,” a statement from United Tribes of Bristol Bay reads. Trout Unlimited Alaska Director Nelli Williams called the report “propaganda disguised as a credible document.” Pebble CEO Tom Collier said in a release that the EPA failed to take into account the potential economic benefits of a mine to an economy reliant upon a seasonal resource or the use of mitigation and control measures to reduce a mine’s impact on the environment, points noted by Cohen. “This report clearly makes the case about the criticality of a stable, objective and transparent permitting process for evaluating resource projects such as Pebble,” Collier said. “We did not ask The Cohen Group to evaluate a mine at Pebble as our view remains that this should be handled via the permitting and NEPA review process. The report validates the established regulatory and NEPA process is the fairest and most appropriate process for evaluating a complex issue such as ours.” The report also notes that Pebble participated in the assessment process with the EPA’s assurance that the final document would not be used to make a Section 404(c) decision. Since the release of the final Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment in January 2014, the EPA has acknowledged its conclusion that large-scale mining in Bristol Bay would significantly and irreparably damage the region’s salmon fisheries was drawn from the assessment as the primary evidence for working to ban the proposed mine. The official assessment process began in February 2011.

BC, Alaska to draft MOU for mine processes

JUNEAU — The province of British Columbia and the State of Alaska will draft a memorandum of understanding regarding mines proposed for and located in transboundary watersheds in British Columbia, BC Minister of Energy and Mines William “Bill” Bennett and Lt. Gov. Byron Mallot announced Wednesday at a press conference. Through the MOU, the State of Alaska and British Columbia hope to create a structured way for tribes, stakeholders, environmental groups, sport and commercial fishermen, tourism operators, and other concerned Southeast Alaskans to get information and share concerns about each stage of a mine in a transboundary watershed, including assessment, permitting, operation, closure and reclamation. Bennett said he doesn’t have a guarantee from Alaska that the two will get to a point where the state will sign an MOU, but that’s what BC is hoping for. “Our goal is to, obviously, ensure the environmental integrity, the pristine water quality of those river systems for all time,” Mallott said. “And we will vigorously act in Alaska’s interest to make sure that happens…. We hope that we will be able to expand that process of openness, transparency and meaningful involvement throughout our long-term engagement.” They also aim to involve tribes, first nations and industry in monitoring water quality in the watersheds affected, both for baseline and ongoing datasets. Bennett said he would like to have the memorandum in place within 30 to 60 days. “Such a document would not be engraved in stone,” Mallott said. “It would be living, based upon the needs and the changing circumstances as they may occur over time.” An MOU and International Joint Commission or federal involvement are not mutually exclusive, Bennett said. Concerned Southeast Alaskans have been calling for the involvement of the IJC under the Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909. The IJC resolves disputes about transboundary waters. “Signing a memorandum of understanding or a memorandum of agreement between a state and the province is a way for us to strengthen the relationship, and to create some structures around that relationship, so we have some direction going forward in how we’re going to do business. And for the life of me, I can’t see how it could be construed as a negative thing,” Bennett said. “It doesn’t preclude anything else.” Alaska will continue to engage the federal government, Mallott said; he hopes to speak with Secretary of State John Kerry about transboundary mining when Kerry is in Alaska to “impress upon him the importance of this issue to both of our nations,” to let him know about state and provincial efforts to work together, and to make sure State Department officials keep updated on the issue. For his part, Bennett said he welcomes federal Canadian government help if it is necessary.  One way the government may get involved, he said, is the issue of compensation to Alaskans “should the unthinkable happen.” That’s something some concerned Southeast Alaskans brought up to him over his time here so far, he said. Talks between the two countries were spurred forward following a tailings dam brach at the Mount Polley Mine in August 2014 that sent billions of gallons of toxic tailings into the Quesnel Lake watershed. “It’s a very difficult issue, because it’s an issue that all neighboring countries, I think, wrestle with from time to time,” Mallott said. “Canada and the US have wrestled with this probably for 100 years… I think the federal governments need to be involved in that part of the discussion.” Just the same, he said he thinks most issues can be resolved through provincial and state communication and cooperation. “We are working to have that engagement with all of those interests who have a passionate, direct involvement with these systems,” Mallott said. “Others who have a more public policy orientation — all of those views, all of those perspectives are hugely important. And creating the opportunity for those views to be shared across the border from both directions, I think, will be hugely important and helpful going forward.” It was the first time in more than 20 years for these kinds of international meetings, a release from Mallott’s office said. Bennett and a team from British Columbia were in Juneau for the first part of the week meeting with elected officials, tribes, miners, environmental organizations, fishermen and other stakeholders, as well as touring the Taku River. Today, Bennett and Mallott are in Ketchikan; other BC officials are touring Hecla Mining Company’s Greens Creek Mine on Admiralty Island. Contact outdoors writer Mary Catharine Martin at [email protected]

Judge blocks Obama administration regulation on waterways

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — A federal judge in North Dakota on Thursday blocked a new Obama administration rule that would give the federal government jurisdiction over some smaller waterways just hours before it was set to go into effect. U.S. District Judge Ralph Erickson in Fargo issued a temporary injunction against a the rule that would have given the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Army Corps of Engineers authority over some streams, tributaries and wetlands under the Clean Water Act. The rule was scheduled to take effect Friday. "The risk of irreparable harm to the states is both imminent and likely," Erickson said in granting the request of 13 states to temporarily stop the rule from taking effect. The judge said that among other things, the rule would require "jurisdictional studies" of every proposed natural gas, oil or water pipeline project in North Dakota, which is at the center of an energy exploration boom. The 13 states led by North Dakota asked Erickson to suspend guidelines that they say are unnecessary and infringe on state sovereignty. The federal government says the new rule clarifies ambiguity in the law and actually makes it easier for the states to manage some waterways. It wasn't immediately clear if the injunction applied to states other than the 13 that requested the injunction. North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem, who filed the request, said he was pleased by the ruling. "This is a victory in the first skirmish, but it is only the first," Stenehjem said in a statement. "There is much more to do to prevent this widely unpopular rule from ever taking effect." Stenehjem said his reading of the ruling was that it applied to all 50 states, not just the 13 that sued. The EPA didn't immediately comment. The agriculture industry has been particularly concerned about the regulation, saying that it could apply to drainage ditches on farmland. The EPA and Army Corps said the only ditches that would be covered under the rule are those that look, act and function like tributaries and carry pollution downstream. A tributary would be regulated if it shows evidence of flowing water such as a bank or high water mark, the EPA says. The other states involved in the lawsuit are Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Idaho, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, Nevada, South Dakota and Wyoming. Erickson cited Wyoming in his ruling, saying the state would have to bear the cost of things such as issuing permits and has no way of avoiding the increased expenses under the regulation. State officials in North Dakota said the new rule will cost the state millions of dollars and take away from more important programs. State Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring said there's "confusion and anxiety" among farmers and other landowners over the initiative. At the very least, state officials argued, more time was needed to study the rule, which was finalized on May 27. Stenehjem — along with attorneys general and officials from 30 other states — wrote last month to the EPA and the Army Corps asking that the law be postponed at least nine months. Lawyers for the states said they heard nothing back from the government, so they filed a request for the preliminary injunction. The federal government said the request for an injunction was better suited to be heard by the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rather than a federal judge, but Erickson rejected that notion.  

BC, Alaska to draft MOU for mine processes

JUNEAU — The province of British Columbia and the State of Alaska will draft a memorandum of understanding regarding mines proposed for and located in transboundary watersheds in British Columbia, BC Minister of Energy and Mines William “Bill” Bennett and Lt. Gov. Byron Mallot announced Wednesday at a press conference. Through the MOU, the State of Alaska and British Columbia hope to create a structured way for tribes, stakeholders, environmental groups, sport and commercial fishermen, tourism operators, and other concerned Southeast Alaskans to get information and share concerns about each stage of a mine in a transboundary watershed, including assessment, permitting, operation, closure and reclamation. Bennett said he doesn’t have a guarantee from Alaska that the two will get to a point where the state will sign an MOU, but that’s what BC is hoping for. “Our goal is to, obviously, ensure the environmental integrity, the pristine water quality of those river systems for all time,” Mallott said. “And we will vigorously act in Alaska’s interest to make sure that happens…. We hope that we will be able to expand that process of openness, transparency and meaningful involvement throughout our long-term engagement.” They also aim to involve tribes, first nations and industry in monitoring water quality in the watersheds affected, both for baseline and ongoing datasets. Bennett said he would like to have the memorandum in place within 30 to 60 days. “Such a document would not be engraved in stone,” Mallott said. “It would be living, based upon the needs and the changing circumstances as they may occur over time.” An MOU and International Joint Commission or federal involvement are not mutually exclusive, Bennett said. Concerned Southeast Alaskans have been calling for the involvement of the IJC under the Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909. The IJC resolves disputes about transboundary waters. “Signing a memorandum of understanding or a memorandum of agreement between a state and the province is a way for us to strengthen the relationship, and to create some structures around that relationship, so we have some direction going forward in how we’re going to do business. And for the life of me, I can’t see how it could be construed as a negative thing,” Bennett said. “It doesn’t preclude anything else.” Alaska will continue to engage the federal government, Mallott said; he hopes to speak with Secretary of State John Kerry about transboundary mining when Kerry is in Alaska to “impress upon him the importance of this issue to both of our nations,” to let him know about state and provincial efforts to work together, and to make sure State Department officials keep updated on the issue. For his part, Bennett said he welcomes federal Canadian government help if it is necessary.   One way the government may get involved, he said, is the issue of compensation to Alaskans “should the unthinkable happen.” That’s something some concerned Southeast Alaskans brought up to him over his time here so far, he said. Talks between the two countries were spurred forward following a tailings dam brach at the Mount Polley Mine in August 2014 that sent billions of gallons of toxic tailings into the Quesnel Lake watershed. “It’s a very difficult issue, because it’s an issue that all neighboring countries, I think, wrestle with from time to time,” Mallott said. “Canada and the US have wrestled with this probably for 100 years… I think the federal governments need to be involved in that part of the discussion.” Just the same, he said he thinks most issues can be resolved through provincial and state communication and cooperation. “We are working to have that engagement with all of those interests who have a passionate, direct involvement with these systems,” Mallott said. “Others who have a more public policy orientation — all of those views, all of those perspectives are hugely important. And creating the opportunity for those views to be shared across the border from both directions, I think, will be hugely important and helpful going forward.” It was the first time in more than 20 years for these kinds of international meetings, a release from Mallott’s office said. Bennett and a team from British Columbia were in Juneau for the first part of the week meeting with elected officials, tribes, miners, environmental organizations, fishermen and other stakeholders, as well as touring the Taku River. Today, Bennett and Mallott are in Ketchikan; other BC officials are touring Hecla Mining Company’s Greens Creek Mine on Admiralty Island.

DNR hears arguments for Chuitna tributary water rights

A small creek is causing big trouble for Chuitna mine developers and the Alaska Department of Natural Resources. The Alaska Department of Natural Resources, or DNR, heard arguments Aug. 21 from Chuitna Citizens Coalition, Cook Inletkeeper, the Alaska Center for the Environment, and PacRim Coal in the latest installment of a lengthy and contentious permitting process for a proposed coalmine in the Chuitna River drainage. The hearing centered not as much around the well-established pro-mining and pro-salmon arguments as a regulatory question. Representatives presented arguments for whether DNR should grant water rights to Chuitna Citizens Coalition, with which the Chuitna organization could potentially halt PacRim’s ongoing regulatory permitting process. Both PacRim and the mine opponents have filed applications for water reservations, and DNR must decide whose application will prevail. “The big issue for us is the policy issue, whether DNR should allow private citizens to take part in the permitting process,” said Eric Fjelstad, an attorney representing PacRim. “We think that answer should clearly be no.” PacRim’s proposal has seen intense criticism from Alaskans, who have collectively sent more than 7,500 letters of public comment to the Department of Natural Resources opposing the mine and supporting the establishment of water rights aimed at salmon habitat preservation. The mine would require PacRim to dewater 20 square miles of salmon spawning grounds to dig a strip mine for low sulfur coal. Chuitna Citizens Coalition, Cook Inletkeeper, and the Alaska Center for the Environment have filed for in-stream flow reservations, or IFRs, which would grant a measure of regulatory authority for one of the Chuitna River tributaries, Middle Creek. PacRim cannot build the mine without draining this stream. PacRim objects roundly to Chuitna Citizens Coalition’s IFR. IFRs are typically reserved for state and local governments, rather than private citizens or coalitions, though certain isolated cases exist giving IFRs to non-governmental organizations, according to Trustees for Alaska legal director Valerie Brown. PacRim and others argued that the unintended consequences of awarding IFRs to private citizens set a dangerous precedent for investment and development in Alaska. “There is no need (for privatizing IFRs) when you have the kind of permitting process you have here,” Fjelstad said. “The resources that you have here will be squarely addressed by the permitting process. This is the big issue. It’s the reason trade groups are here. They care about the integrity of the process.” Indeed, several representatives from oil, gas, and mining industries with no vested interest in the Chuitna Coal Project, including the Alaska Oil and Gas Association and the Alaska Miners Association, also voiced fear that granting Chuitna Citizens Coalition an IFR would have negative impacts on the industry. “It makes very little sense for water flow decisions to be made outside the regulatory framework of the permitting process,” said Alaska Miners Association Executive Director Deantha Crockett. “Alaskans rely on the permitting process. Chuitna is no exception.” The permitting process itself, mine proponents said, already takes into account the best public interest and conservation issues that concern Chuitna Citizens Coalition and others. DNR will always have those factors to consider, and snagging the process won’t help, they said. “There’s no upside to Alaska making this decision now,” said Josh Kindred, counsel for the Alaska Oil and Gas Association. “If you want to make a decision (to halt permitting) later, fine. Wait until you have all the information after the tried and true permitting process.” The Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority, the landowner for the bulk of the proposed mine, is entitled to a percentage of the mineral rights through a state trust, and argued against DNR granting IFRs because it would hinder the public interest. “The Alaska trust is the predominant land owner in the Chuitna River drainage,” said John Morrison from the Alaska Mental Health Trust. “The revenue anticipated from this project alone with effectively double our historic revenue from trust lands. The granting of an IFR would be the end of this project. The state has a fiduciary duty to trust land.” Brown of Trustees for Alaska argued that the IFRs would be in harmony with the Water Use Act, that the three private organizations have followed each requirement for filing, and that the fears of the mining industry are overblown. “This doesn’t turn (Chuitna Citizens Coalition) into some jackbooted regulator,” said Brown. “You have limited ability to do much. This does not prevent the administrative process. It won’t change the proceedings. We have a right to the adjudication.” Bob Shavelson, executive director of Cook Inletkeeper, disagreed that DNR’s choice amounted to a regulatory procedure, and that the matter at hand is, and can only be, about the health of the salmon. “This isn’t about the regulatory issue,” Shavelson said. “It’s about the fish… I’ve heard time and again that fish and mining can coexist. I’m sure there was a lot of money behind that at PacRim’s office. You can’t have it both ways. You’re either going to mine, or you’re going to fish, you can’t have both.” DNR has a tentative date of Oct. 9 scheduled for the IFR decision. DJ Summers can be reached at [email protected]

BC minister talks transboundary mine issues

JUNEAU — British Columbia Minister of Energy and Mines William “Bill” Bennett, on a four-day trip to Southeast Alaska, said after visiting the Tulsequah Chief Mine on Aug. 24 that the pollution the defunct mine has been draining into the Taku River watershed for decades should be fixed. Bennett and several other British Columbian representatives were in Southeast Alaska Aug. 23 through Aug. 27, meeting with tribes, stakeholders, government officials, environmental groups, elected officials and fishermen, as well as touring the Taku River, going to see Greens Creek Mine and other activities. On Aug. 24, Bennett and Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott visited the Tulsequah Chief mine. The Tulsequah Chief has been leaching acid mine drainage into the Tulsequah River since it closed in 1957, and Alaska has been asking British Columbia to clean up the mine site for years. British Columbia and Environment Canada have also been trying to get the companies that own it (they’ve changed over the years) to clean it up. Chieftain Metals Corp. is the current owner. Tulsequah Chief drainage “is not something that I’m proud of, as a British Columbian,” Bennett said. “It’s something that needs to be addressed.” A December 2014 report found that the drainage poses a low risk to fish in the Tulsequah River and is not affecting fish in the Taku River, into which the Tulsequah flows. Bennett mentioned those findings, but added that “it (the drainage) is still something that needs to be rectified. I think that BC is going to have to find a way to rectify it sooner rather than later, and I think it is a most legitimate criticism of us by those folks in Alaska that don’t like it.” The trip up the Taku, Mallott said, was “just a … further ratification” of the reasons to strengthen the working relationship between Alaska and the British Columbia government. “The bottom line for us is that Alaska’s interests are clearly, in a timely manner, in an appropriate manner, and in a very responsible manner, protected, and we will use every opportunity, we will use every tool that is available to us in order to achieve that,” Mallott said. IJC Bennett said those tools shouldn’t yet involve the International Joint Commission, which many Southeast Alaskans concerned about transboundary mining have been working towards involving under the Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909. “It’s very much premature to start rushing towards, you know, one big solution that’s going to make everybody feel better,” Bennett said of IJC involvement. First, he said, everyone needs to agree on the facts. “One of the things we need to do is get the facts straight in terms of what exactly is going on in Northwestern British Columbia,” Bennett said. Bennett said there’s a perception in Alaska that many of the transboundary mines the province is working toward approving are already in operation. The Red Chris, in the Stikine River watershed, began operating this year, and the Brucejack, in the Unuk River watershed, recently received federal environmental approval. “There is time to get this right,” he said of other proposed mines, like Kerr Sulphurets Mitchell, in the Unuk River watershed. He also said there’s a perception that the independent panel report on Mount Polley Mine’s August 2014 tailings dam failure, released earlier this year, said dry stack tailings is the only real option. “They in fact do not say that dry stack tailings is the only way to achieve best available technology,” Bennett said of the report. “If you have potentially acid-generating rock, you probably will want to put that underwater because it neutralizes the generation of acid. ... All the experts in mining are well aware of that. There’s a variety of ways you can achieve best available technology. ... Some folks have fastened onto the idea that the panel has said dry stack tailings is the only way to go, when in fact, they didn’t say that.” The report read: “Improving technology to ensure against failures requires eliminating water both on and in the tailings: water on the surface, and water contained in the interparticle voids. Only this can provide the kind of failsafe redundancy that prevents releases no matter what…. Simply put, dam failures are reduced by reducing the number of dams that can fail.” It added that, “... Mount Polley has shown the intrinsic hazards associated with dual-purpose impoundments storing both water and tailings.” It acknowledges the importance of the chemical stability Bennett mentioned, as well as the fact that water covers are a convenient way to arrest chemical reactions, but added that “chemical stability requires above all else that the tailings stay in one place” and recommends that “where applicable, alternatives to water covers should be aggressively pursued.” The Red Chris, which was approved just a few business days after the report came out, uses a watered tailings facility. Bennett says that BC will adopt and implement all seven of the panel’s recommendations and that he has a letter from one of the report’s authors attesting that dry stack tailings are not the only way. “Anybody that says the Red Chris was permitted in contravention of the report just simply hasn’t read the report,” he said. “There are many, many things that have been said that are not correct.” Trip goals Over the course of the four days he’s in Southeast Alaska, Bennett said he aims to build trust between Alaska and BC, to listen “to people that have interests in salmon” as well as state officials, fishermen and those in tourism and “to see what we can do to provide some comfort about BC’s mining processes.” “We don’t have any illusions about coming here for four days and suddenly, you know, having everybody jumping up and down saying, ‘Well, isn’t it great that BC’s potentially going to build a mine upstream from us?’” he said. “What we hope for is an opportunity to have some respectful dialogue with people who have been expressing concerns.” Bennett sought to find common ground with the concerned groups with whom he’s speaking, saying that he shares the same values as people here who are concerned. He added that he hunts and fishes himself. He and Mallott went fishing Aug. 25. “I understand why people feel so strongly about protecting what they have. ... There’s a way of life here that has tremendous value, and the people who live here don’t want to lose that. I get that. I understand that,” he said. BC also plans to offer Alaska additional access to the mine approval process and to “make it easier” to get information, which Bennett said he hopes will set environmental organizations and tribes at ease. “Folks in Alaska, because they’re downstream of these proposed projects, have every right to know how we’re doing our work in BC, and what evidence we’re basing our decisions on,” Bennett said. Bennett arrived in Alaska Aug. 23 with Cynthia Petrie, Chief of Staff; Wes Shoemaker, Deputy Minister for the Ministry of Environment; Dave Morel, Assistant Deputy Minister for the Ministry of Energy and Mines; Doug Hill, Mining Section Head of the Ministry of Environment’s Environmental Protection Division; Chris Hamilton, Senior Executive Lead Executive Project Director for the Ministry of Environment’s Environmental Assessment Office, and Tania Demchuk, Senior Environmental Geoscientist for the Ministry of Energy and Mines. Bennett’s Juneau-based schedule ran through Aug. 26; he spent Aug. 27 in Ketchikan. On Aug. 27, Bennett, Mallott, Hamilton, Morel, Petrie and Blake flew to Ketchikan to meet with the Ketchikan Indian Community representatives, have lunch with the Chamber of Commerce, and meet with the Alaska Miners Association. Other representatives will tour Greens Creek mine on Admiralty Island. Contact Juneau Empire outdoors writer Mary Catharine Martin at [email protected]

Greens Creek, Kensington mines expanding production

Minerals prices are still low but Alaska’s producing mines are doing well, for the most part. Two underground mines near Juneau, the Greens Creek Mine on northern Admiralty Island and the Kensington Mine at Berner’s Bay north of the capital city, both showed increases in production and improved efficiency. Hecla Mining Co., which owns Greens Creek, said production of silver at the mine was up 10 percent in the second quarter of 2015 compared with the same period of 2014. Gold production dropped at the mine but silver is the more important metal in the ore being mined. Greens Creek also produces zinc and lead. A key element in the higher silver output was improved recovery of the metal in the Greens Creek process mill, the company said. “Higher grades and recoveries at Greens Creek during the quarter continued to improve the mine’s already strong performance,” said Hecla President and CEO Philips Baker Jr. in a statement issued with the quarterly report. Mike Sarte, Hecla’s manager of Alaska external relations, said the improved recovery is a “game changer” for Greens Creek. “This is very significant. Historically most mines produce higher grades first and then the grade trends lower,” as lower-quality ore zones are tapped, he said. “In this case, while we can’t control the grade of the ore we can control how we process it. Changes in the mill process have increased silver recovery.” In another development at Greens Creek, Hecla has started work on the long-planned expansion of its tailings storage facility. All permits are now in hand for the expansion and SeCon, a Southeast Alaska construction company, has been contracted to do the work and removal of surface overburden is now underway. The $44 million expansion, which will cover 18 acres, will take three years to complete. The larger tailings facility will be sufficient to support Greens Creek until 2027 to 2028, and Hecla has already started discussions on another expansion after that, which would further extend the life of the mine. Greens Creek now employs about 413 workers, most who live in Juneau, with a $62 million annual payroll. At the Kensington Mine, which produces gold, the volume of ore mined averaged 170,649 tons in the second quarter of 2015, up from 163,749 tons in second quarter 2014, and gold production increased to 29,845 ounces compared with 28,089 ounces in second quarter 2014. The average gold grade was the same in both periods, at 0.18 ounce per ton, but the gold recovery rate, in the process mill at the mine, improved slightly to 94.9 percent in second quarter this year from 94.5 percent in the same period of 2015. The big news for Kensington is that the mine is expanding into the nearby Jualin deposit, with work on access the deposit beginning in July. When mining from Jualin is fully ramped up in 2018 the total Kensington gold production is expected to reach 149,000 ounces annually, up 26 percent. Operations at the underground Pogo gold mine near Delta, in Interior Alaska, are proceeding normally this year except for challenges with forest fires this summer, which blanketed much of the Interior with smoke. “In some weeks we had smoke at the mine no matter which way the wind was blowing,” said Lorna Shaw, spokeswoman for Sumitomo Metal Mining, the owner and operator of Pogo. One fire broke out five miles from the mine and grew to 1,000 acres until being controlled by state Department of Natural Resources crews with the assistance of Pogo staff. The fire did not threaten mine operations, however. Pogo is approaching two important milestones. The mine will reach the 3-million ounce production threshold late this summer, and is also close to operating for two years without a lost-time accident, Shaw said. “This achievement will be a first for Pogo and it takes dedication and hard work from every single employee to make sure we achieve it,” she said. The mine employs about 315 workers directly as well as another 150-plus contractor employees, Shaw said. At the Fort Knox gold mine near Fairbanks, Kinross Gold, the owner and operator, is on track for 2015 production at about the same level as 2014, according to spokeswoman Anna Atchison. The mine currently employs about 660, she said. Milestones for this year include the company’s purchase of two new 793F haul trucks in the first quarter of the year. Fort Knox is also investing in improvements of its ore process streams to include construction of a new process solution booster pump station, she said. “As part of our overall drive for further efficiencies and cost reductions in a tight gold price environment, we recently increased haul truck payloads by 7 percent and cut shift change times by an impressive 23 percent in the first quarter alone,” Atchison said. “At the Usibelli coal mine near Healy, production is down this year because of slipping export sales of coal, but sales of coal within Alaska, the bulk of it for power generation, remain strong. Total coal production for 2015 is expected be approximately 1.4 million tons for but it could still be a bit higher, Usibelli Coal Mine, Inc. spokeswoman Lorali Simon said. “We’re still working to do more export sales.” The domestic Alaska coal market appears stable at about 1 million tons per year but exports in 2015 may slip from about 600,000 tons in 2014 to 400,000 tons this year, she said. The strong U.S. dollar makes Alaska exports expensive and is hurting export sales, she said. Other factors include the opening of a new coal mine in Chile that is cutting in that market for Alaska and South Korea’s imposition of an import tax on coal for utilities in that nation. South Korea has been a traditional customer for Usibelli. The company employs about 115 full-time workers at its mine near Healy, Simon said. In a new development, a state administrative appeals officer has sided with the Department of Natural Resources in awarding Usibelli renewals on coal mining leases at the Wishbone Hill coal deposit near Palmer, which the company hopes to develop. Opponents of the mine may file a lawsuit, however. If Wishbone Hill is developed it would produce about 500,000 tons per year and employ 75 to 125 people.

What will exploration permit ruling mean for industry?

The mining industry is waiting for the Department of Natural Resources to chart a path forward after an Alaska Supreme Court ruling that could change permitting procedures and require public notice for exploration work. Two months after the ruling in the case over Pebble Limited Partnership exploration permits went against the State of Alaska, it is still unclear exactly what the state will do to respond. Alaska Miners Association Executive Director Deantha Crockett she’s hopeful some members of the industry will be able to assist DNR in moving from “temporary permits for temporary activity to permanent permits for temporary activity.” However, the detailed work has not yet taken place. The case focused on whether or not temporary state land-use permits for exploration of Pebble’s claims were truly functionally revocable at any time, as the state claimed. DNR typically issues five-year Miscellaneous Land Use Permits, or MLUPs, and Temporary Water Use Permits, or TWUPs, for mining exploration done on state land, as in the case of Pebble. The plaintiffs listed, the anti-Pebble group Nunamta Aulukestai, Ricky Delkittie, Sr., the late Violet Willson, Vic Fischer and Bella Hammond claimed DNR should allow for public comment prior to issuing these permits, because among other things, permanent damage is could be done to state land. Exploration impacts that constitute a permanent “disposal” of land are something Alaska residents should be able to weigh in on under the state constitution, they argued. Exploration drill, or bore, holes are usually filled with concrete or other impermeable cement-like mixtures to prevent movement of groundwater between layers of bedrock and subsequent possible contamination. Robert Retherford, president of the exploration and geology consulting firm Alaska Earth Sciences, said steel drill casing is sometimes left in the hole when it becomes stuck or is needed to prevent collapse. In those instances, cement is forced down the casing until it pushes up around the outside of the casing, sealing and entrapping it in a safe concrete environment. The Supreme Court found these “concrete pillars,” as it referred to them in its May 29 ruling, to be permanent structures, which in part made the exploration permits irrevocable. DNR argued that the common practice of filling boreholes is environmentally benign. It’s a long-time common practice in the mining industry. Retherford said defining old bore holes as permanent structures “creates a lot of fog and haze” around the permitting process. Executive director for the environmental advocacy law firm Trustees for Alaska Vicki Clark said in a release after the ruling that the state has “issued permits behind closed doors without even looking at the harm to public resources,” and the Supreme Court ruling will put an end to that practice. “This decision means that all Alaskans, especially those whose rights and livelihoods are jeopardized by intensive exploration activities like those at Pebble, have the constitutional right to participate in the decisions affecting them,” Clark said. The court also found the permits to be irrevocable for large exploration projects such as Pebble’s, which totaled more than $300 million, because DNR staff could be swayed to issue or protect permits when such large sums of money are at stake. The court did not determine a monetary threshold where that becomes the case. Retherford said the issue off permanent structures simply doesn’t make sense. “We’re concluding that the people making the regulations, in this case the Supreme Court, that they’ve had enough coaching or enough time to really understand how (the exploration process) works. It doesn’t seem like that in this case, so we’ll see,” Retherford said. When a borehole penetrates no aquifers, as is often the case in mountain drilling, putting the drill cuttings back would be an acceptable way to meet the new requirements if sealing a hole is unfeasible, he said. Changing current regulations to meet the Supreme Court’s view could make some exploration cost prohibitive, according to Retherford. He said he uses a ballpark figure of $150 per foot for exploration drilling when discussing cost with potential clients. “It’s not uncommon to see a million bucks go into a hole if you’re drilling say 3,000, 4,000, 5,000 feet” when preparatory work is included, he said. The Supreme Court decision overturned a Superior Court ruling that shot down the plaintiffs’ six claims for relief. Alaska Miners Association attorney Larry Albert noted that the court did not find evidence of actual environmental harm from the filled holes, but rather used potential harm as the basis for its ruling. He also said the Supreme Court did an “end run” on the Superior Court ruling and did not rule on the merits of the case. Rather, it determined the case to be moot because Pebble’s permits had expired and exploration had ceased, but decided to rule based on the need for a resolution that had implications in an associated case dealing with attorneys’ fees. Albert said that is a legitimate course of action; however, the court ended up ruling on what happened in Pebble’s case and not on what would likely happen in future cases, thus issuing a contradictory ruling. Crockett said the ruling should concern individuals on either side of the development debate — for or against — because it clouds a permitting process that should be built on science alone. “We need to have a permitting process that’s clear, that’s predictable, that we understand and that we have confidence in,” she said. Without a defined regulatory framework using the best available science, the confidence of the public and potential project investors is damaged, Crockett said. Rick Van Nieuwenhuyse, CEO of NovaCopper, which is exploring copper deposits in the Ambler Mining District along the Brooks Range, said his company has always found Alaska to be a good permitting environment to conduct work. NovaCopper’s $5 million summer season exploration and data gathering plan is one of the few significant mine exploration projects going on in the state this year. Van Nieuwenhuyse commended the work DNR and the Department of Environmental Conservation have done in the past and said he expects state regulations “to reflect what’s reasonable.” “What we do currently and what we’ll continue to do is meet the regulations,” Van Nieuwenhuyse said. Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

Federal judge allows Pebble case against EPA to continue

Pebble Limited Partnership’s lawsuit against the Environmental Protection Agency will continue as a federal judge denied the agency’s motion to dismiss June 4. U.S. Alaska District Court Judge H. Russel Holland concluded that while the EPA may not have established the three “anti-mine” groups as described by Pebble in its complaint — the Anti-Mine Coalition, Scientists and Assessment Team — agency staff could have utilized them to draft the pending determination to block development of Pebble’s copper and gold claims near Bristol Bay. The mining organization’s attorneys argued during a May 28 hearing that the agency was in cahoots with area tribes and mine opposition groups for years prior to and during the Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment process. The exhaustive assessment, which found large-scale mining would irreparably harm the region’s robust salmon fisheries, is the basis for the EPA’s attempt to preemptively stop Pebble through its Clean Water Act Section 404(c) wetlands protection authority. Pebble’s primary argument centers on the claim that the EPA violated the Federal Advisory Committee Act, or FACA, which requires agencies to remain objective and follow strict public notice and open meetings guidelines on policy issues when taking input from interest groups. “We are convinced the EPA has pursued a biased process against our project that then drove their actions toward a predetermined outcome,” Pebble CEO Tom Collier said in a formal statement after the order. “Our fight with the EPA has been about a fair and transparent process for objectively evaluating a development plan for our project once we have presented it via the permitting process. In addition to this case, we are seeking documents to show the EPA’s lack of transparency and action under the Freedom Information Act.” He also said the group has commissioned an independent investigation into the EPA’s actions in regards to Pebble. The EPA Inspector General is in the midst of a review of the Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment that began more than a year ago. As far as the court case goes, Pebble will now seek to depose federal employees and members of third-party groups involved in drafting the assessment, Collier said. The agency claims that even if it unknowingly violated FACA, Pebble had ample opportunity to provide input during more than 30 meetings with EPA officials since 2003 — long before the assessment process officially began in 2011. The United Tribes of Bristol Bay and Trout Unlimited Alaska, two staunch opponent groups of the mine, issued statements saying Holland’s ruling doesn’t change the fact that the science behind the assessment proves Pebble would damage the region’s aquatic resources. “This case is simply another delay tactic from Pebble. The company’s complaints about the federal advisory process — a process Pebble itself participated in —in no way changes the scientific fact that this mine, in this place, will devastate our fishery, “ UTBB President Robert Heyano said in a June 4 release. “Today’s ruling was merely a preliminary step in a judicial process that isn’t over, and if further litigation is the price necessary to protect the Bristol Bay fishery and our traditional way of life, then it will be well worth it.” In November, Holland issued an injunction to halt all work on the 404(c) process until the court case is resolved. He dismissed with prejudice Pebble’s allegations that the EPA established the Anti-Mine Coalition and Anti-Mine Scientists groups in the latest order. Holland also dismissed with prejudice Pebble’s claim for injunctive relief. The EPA was also relieved from answering chunks of the amended Pebble complaint, which it claimed violated court procedure. “(Pebble’s) first amended complaint is lengthy and does contain irrelevant and redundant allegations and unnecessary factual details,” Holland wrote. “But rather than dismissing the first amended complaint, the court will excuse the defendants from answering” the sections that do not pertain to the FACA accusations. Holland called Pebble’s original, 138-page complaint, an “outrageous violation” of court procedural guidelines when issuing the November injunction. Also on May 28, a three-judge panel from the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed a previous lawsuit by Pebble — also heard and dismissed by Holland last September — that the EPA overstepped its authority by beginning the 404(c) process before a mine plan or permit applications were submitted. It was determined that case was not ripe for a ruling until the mine veto was finalized. Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

Judge allows Pebble case against EPA to continue

Pebble Limited Partnership’s lawsuit against the Environmental Protection Agency will continue as a federal judge Thursday morning denied the agency’s motion to dismiss. U.S. Alaska District Court Judge H. Russel Holland concluded that while the EPA may not have established the three “anti-mine” groups as described by Pebble in its complaint — the Anti-Mine Coalition, Scientists and Assessment Team — agency staff could have utilized them to draft the pending determination to block development of Pebble’s copper and gold claims near Bristol Bay. The mining organization’s attorneys argued during a May 28 hearing that the agency was in cahoots with area tribes and mine opposition groups for years prior to and during the Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment process. The exhaustive assessment, which found large-scale mining would irreparably harm the region’s robust salmon fisheries, is the basis for the EPA’s attempt to preemptively stop Pebble through its Clean Water Act Section 404(c) wetlands protection authority. Pebble’s primary argument centers on the claim that the EPA violated the Federal Advisory Committee Act, or FACA, which requires agencies to remain objective and follow strict public notice and open meetings guidelines on policy issues when taking input from interest groups. The agency claims that even if it unknowingly violated FACA, Pebble had ample opportunity to provide input during more than 30 meetings with EPA officials since 2003 — long before the assessment process officially began in 2011. In November, Holland issued an injunction to prevent the EPA from finalizing the 404(c) process until the court case is resolved. He dismissed with prejudice Pebble’s allegations that the EPA established the Anti-Mine Coalition and Anti-Mine Scientists groups in the latest order. Holland also dismissed with prejudice Pebble’s claim for injunctive relief. The EPA was also relieved from answering chunks of the amended Pebble complaint, which it claimed violated court procedure. “(Pebble’s) first amended complaint is lengthy and does contain irrelevant and redundant allegations and unnecessary factual details,” Holland wrote. “But rather than dismissing the first amended complaint, the court will excuse the defendants from answering” the sections that do not pertain to the FACA accusations. Holland called Pebble’s original, 138-page complaint, an “outrageous violation” of court procedural guidelines when issuing the November injunction. Also on May 28, the federal a three-judge panel from the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed a previous lawsuit by Pebble — also heard and dismissed by Holland last September — that the EPA overstepped its authority by beginning the 404(c) process before a mine plan or permit applications were submitted. It was determined that case was not ripe for a ruling until the mine veto was finalized. Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

Dismissal arguments heard in Pebble-EPA case

Pebble Limited Partnership and the Environmental Protection Agency argued in court May 28 whether the agency violated federal law in developing the Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment, which is the basis for its effort to block Pebble mine. The oral arguments on the EPA’s motion to dismiss Pebble’s lawsuit were heard in Alaska U.S. District Court by Judge H. Russel Holland. Justice Department attorney for the EPA Brad Rosenberg said the agency did not violate the Federal Advisory Committee Act as Pebble contends, because the EPA had the same type of contact with Pebble as it did with the groups and individuals Pebble claims it conspired with to stop mine development. The Federal Advisory Committee Act, or FACA, was enacted in 1972 to set guidelines for federal agencies and ensure committees they form are objective and open to the public. Pebble claims it was shut out of the assessment process, but it had regular contact with EPA staff at all levels beginning in 2003, Rosenberg argued. “Pebble had a role in creating the Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment,” he said. “If anything, Pebble had unprecedented access to the EPA.” Rosenberg said the EPA officials all they way up to the administrator met with Pebble about 30 times from 2003 to 2013. The mine developers simply disagree with the science in the assessment, according to Rosenberg. He said the FACA requirements are narrow and do not apply in this instance. In February 2014, shortly after releasing the final version of the 1,000-plus page Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment, the EPA announced it would begin the process to block development of Pebble’s gold and copper claims with its authority under Section 404(c) of the Clean Water Act. Coincidentally on May 28, a three-judge 9th Circuit Court of Appeals panel dismissed another Pebble lawsuit against the EPA claiming harm from the 404(c) mine veto. Holland initially dismissed that case last September because the agency hadn’t issued its final action, thus making Pebble’s argument not ripe for consideration, at least for the time being. The assessment concluded that large-scale surface mining in the Bristol Bay region would significantly impact the robust salmon and resident fisheries in the area. Pebble filed suit the suit argued May 28 before Holland in September 2014, alleging the assessment to be biased. Holland issued an injunction halting the 404(c) veto process in November to prevent the agency’s action from becoming final during the lawsuit. Pebble attorney Roger Yoerges argued that the EPA set up “de-facto” advisory committees based on contact the agency had with anti-mine groups, which is evidenced in the documents obtained from Freedom of Information Act requests Pebble has submitted to the EPA. “The government is saying a federal committee cannot exist unless they say it exists,” Yoerges said. In its complaint, Pebble attorneys claim the agency set up three informal advisory committees the mining company dubbed the “anti-mine coalition,” the “anti-mine scientists” and the “anti-mine assessment team.” Rosenberg countered that an agency can’t inadvertently set up an advisory committee. A formal advisory committee must be made up of a balanced panel of members and publish actions in the Federal Register. He also said the 2010 emails between anti-mine activists and then-EPA ecologist Phillip North that Pebble has touted as prime examples of the bias within the agency were to a “low-level” agency scientist and had little impact on the assessment, officially undertaken in 2011. Yoerges said the EPA attorneys were arguing the facts of the case appropriate for a summary judgment motion during a hearing for dismissal, and that further discovery would allow Pebble to flesh out its allegations, he said. “We suspect more discovery will show more documents in support of our view,” Yoerges said. In his rebuttal, Rosenberg called the advisory committees “nothing more than a figment of (the) plaintiff’s imagination.” He said everybody wanted the EPA to hear their respective views during and before the assessment process. Rosenberg noted that the EPA regional administrator could have initiated the 404(c) process in 2010 if the agency’s mind was made up at that time, but decided to do a detailed scientific assessment of the resource in question. He said the Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment is a final, standalone scientific document, separate from the pending 404(c) action. However, senior EPA officials have cited the assessment as the basis for starting the mine veto process. Finally, Rosenberg said Pebble would still have a chance to further voice its position on the 404(c) process if the injunction is lifted. When Holland issued the injunction halting the veto effort last November, he said the 404(c) process could result in “no action, but it isn’t headed that way.” Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

Exploration payrolls down as producing mines add jobs

Minerals employment and industry spending dropped in 2014 compared with 2013 and 2012 but the decline is attributed mostly to sharp declines in expenditures for exploration. The state’s larger producing mines added jobs in all three years, according to the latest minerals industry economic report by McDowell Group. The report was recently released by the Alaska Miners Association. McDowell Group is a Juneau-based economic research firm.  The latest report shows 4,400 employed in mining in Alaska in total during 2014, down from 4,600 in 2013 and 4,800 in 2012. Payroll is also down, to $620 million in 2014 from $630 million in 2013 and $650 million in 2012. However, payments to local governments, in taxes and in-lieu-of-tax payments, rose in 2014 relative 2013, to $17.4 million paid in 2014 compared with $17 million in 2013. Payments to municipalities totaled $21 million in 2012. The totals include all jobs related to mining including exploration, metals and coal production activities and gravel mining. Counter to the overall trend, the state’s six larger producing mines have been adding jobs mostly due to increased production and new development work in the mines. For example, the Fort Knox gold mine near Fairbanks, a surface mine, employed 650 in 2014, up from 630 in 2013 and 548 in 2012. The Greens Creek Mine near Juneau, an underground multi-metals mine, employed 415 in 2014, 400 in 2013 and 390 in 2012; the Kensington Mine, an underground gold mine also near Juneau, employed 320 in 2014, 306 in 2013 and 300 in 2012; Pogo, another underground gold mine near Delta east of Fairbanks, employed 320 in both 2013 and 2014 (data for Pogo for 2012 was inconsistent in the McDowell reports); the Red Dog lead-zinc mine north of Kotzenue, a surface mine, employed 610 in 2014, 639 in 2013 and 604 in 2012. The Usibelli mine near Healy, Alaska’s only coal mine, employed 140 in both 2014 and 2013, and 124 in 2012. All of the state’s producing mines are doing well, but there has been a sharp drop in exploration spending over three years caused mainly by declines in metals prices, the recent weakening in China, a strong importer, and continued economic weakness in Japan and Europe. Exploration spending dropped to $67 million in 2014, down from $180 million in 2013 and $275 million in 2012, according to the McDowell report. Exploration spending is a barometer for the mineral industry’s future because it results in new discoveries, a few of which typically become producing mines. Mines tend to have long lives, typically several decades, once they get into production but eventually the ore is depleted and new projects need to be coming into the pipeline, which is a result of continued exploration. In terms of immediate impact, the falloff in exploration tends to affect a number of smaller support companies including air taxi firms, camp and logistics service operators and a variety of technical-support firms such as laboratories. Meanwhile, work is continuing on eight new mine development projects that are a result of discoveries made decades ago. Seven of these are far enough along in development planning that estimates of new jobs in production can be made. Those seven would add 3,615 permanent jobs if all are developed. These include: • The large Donlin Gold project near Crooked Creek, in the mid-Kuskokwim River region, which could employ as much as 1,400 production workers. Donlin Gold would be a large surface mine and it is now in an advanced stage of environmental impact statement work for its project after which a decision on construction could be made. • Pebble, near Iliamna southwest of Anchorage. Although it is snarled in controversy and attempts by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to foreclose development, the large Pebble gold/copper/molybdenum project could create 1,000 production jobs. It would be a surface mine initially and possib ly an underground mine in later years to tap deep mineral resources. Pebble has done extensive exploration and is at an advanced stage of engineering and mine planning. However, the company is seeking to resolve legal issues brought by the EPA’s attempt to foreclose mining before permits can be filed for development. Both Donlin Gold and Pebble are in two of the most economically-depressed regions of the state where jobs are badly needed. • Livengood gold project — North of Fairbanks, International Tower Hills is continuing development planning on the large Livengood gold project, a surface mine which could create 450 production jobs if it is developed. The company is now developing a new mine plan to reduce costs. • PacRim Coal, near Anchorage — The company is working on development of the Chuitna coal project on the west side of Cook Inlet, about 50 miles west of Anchorage. The project is now at an advanced stage of permitting. Chuitna would be a surface mine and it would create 300 to 350 production jobs if the mine is built. • Wishbone Hill — North of Palmer, in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, Usibelli Mine Inc. is working on development of the Wishbone Hill coal deposit. If developed it would create 75 to 125 production jobs. • Niblack and Bokan Mountain — In southeast Alaska two new mining projects are in advanced stages of development planning on southern Prince of Wales Island, near Ketchikan. Niblack would be a multi-metals underground mine. If developed Niblack could create 200 production jobs. The second, Bokan Mountain, is a potential rare earths mine, also underground. If constructed it could employ 190. An eighth minerals development project, for which the McDowell Group report did not include potential jobs, is the Upper Kobuk Minerals Project, a joint-venture of NovaCopper Inc., an exploration company, and NANA Regional Corp., the regional Native development corporation in northwest Alaska, which is also a large landowner. This includes two projects, both significant copper discoveries, that are relatively near each other in the western Brooks Range, the Arctic deposit in the Ambler mining district and Bornite, on the upper Kobuk River. Both are in advanced stages of exploration and development plans have been done for Arctic. The region is remote, however, and surface infrastructure would have to be built to the area before mines could be developed. The State of Alaska is working on a plan for a minerals access road to the region from the Dalton Highway, which transects the central Brooks Range, but the project is on hold at the order of Gov. Bill Walker.

Groundhog Day for mining controversy in Southwest AK

Is another mining controversy stirring in Southwest Alaska? Nondalton’s tribal council is protesting the move of its village corporation, Kijik Corp., to form a joint venture with Anchorage-based Alaska Earth Sciences to explore a copper/gold deposit near the village and adjacent to the Pebble project. Pebble is near Iliamna southwest of Anchorage. Nondalton is a community near the Pebble project. The joint venture will explore on state-owned lands near where the Pebble Partnership, a subsidiary of Vancouver-based Northern Dynasty Minerals, proposes to build a large surface mine. On Jan. 6, Kijik Corp. and Alaska Earth Sciences, Inc. announced the formation of Chuchuna Minerals Co., with Alaska Earth Sciences Inc. holding a 51 percent interest and Kijik Corp. owning 49 percent interest in the company. The exploration venture will explore near Groundhog Mountain, which is on nearby on state lands. The Nondalton Tribal Council isn’t happy about that, however. In a statement released Feb. 3 the council said, “We don’t want mining in our area. We don’t want harm to come to our land and water in any way, shape or form. This is the foundation to our way of life and culture.” Despite those feelings, economic development and jobs are badly needed in the region, which is one of the more economically depressed areas of the state. Populations in small communities in the Iliamna area are dwindling, village schools are closing and local services, such as mail delivery, are being curtailed. Mining development is one potential for local development and jobs. Several geophysical surveys have been conducted on the Groundhog property over several years, Kijik and Earth Sciences said in their press release Jan 6. Multiple occurrences of porphyry-style mineralization have been found in the area including Pebble West and East, and several other significant discoveries. All of these occur along a northeast-trending mineralized system. Chuchuna Minerals Co. will be seeking an option partner to continue exploration efforts including geophysical surveys as well as drill testing identified target sites, according to the press release. A possible preemption of mining in the region by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is still possible, however. EPA has moved to use its authority under the Clean Water Act to preempt development and has proposed a ban on large mines in the Bristol Bay region, an area the size of many states. The action has been halted temporarily by a federal court order in an action brought by Pebble Partnership. A decision is pending from Alaska U.S. District Court Judge H. Russel Holland in Anchorage. Kijik Corp. is the ANCSA Village Corporation for the community of Nondalton, located on 6 Mile Lake between Iliamna and Lake Clark. Nondalton is the closest community to the Groundhog Project and is adjacent to the Pebble Project.  “Kijik Corporation brings local experience and resources to the project from the outset, greatly improving the development of an effective community engagement program and focused successful workforce development, the press release said. “In addition, Kijik Corporation has other strategic land holdings in the vicinity of the Groundhog Project.” Alaska Earth Sciences is a geologic and project management consulting company operating in Alaska since 1985. The company has decades of experience working in remote areas of Alaska providing geologic consulting expertise and support to the natural resource and mineral exploration industries. 

Pebble Partnership vs. the EPA — a yearlong conflict

The legal sparring between Pebble Limited Partnership and the Environmental Protection Agency drew headlines throughout the year. It began right away Jan. 15 when the EPA released its Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment, a 1,000-page report three years in the making, which concluded that a large surface mine in the upper reaches of the Bristol Bay watershed would cause significant harm to the region’s dynamic salmon fisheries. Pebble has maintained a stance that the assessment is a seriously flawed document based on biased science. On Feb. 28, the EPA announced it would begin the process to invoke its Clean Water Act authority that allows it to veto large development projects that it deems would have unacceptable adverse consequences to fish and wildlife under Section 404(c) of the act. It is the first time the EPA has used its Clean Water Act power so early in a project’s development; Pebble has not released a formal mine plan. Former Sen. Mark Begich came out against Pebble soon after release of the assessment. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, Rep. Don Young and Sen. Dan Sullivan, who defeated Begich in the Nov. 4 election, all said they want the state and federal permitting processes to decide the fate of the mine. Pebble proponents got a small victory in state court March 19 when the Lake and Peninsula Borough “Save Our Salmon” ordinance that required local approval of a large mine was ruled unconstitutional. In May, Pebble sued the EPA claiming the agency overstepped its authority when it began the Clean Water Act process. The EPA Inspector General also initiated a preliminary review of the process used to draft the Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment. The lawsuit was dismissed — and appealed by Pebble — in September; the IG report is pending. After a late summer round of public testimony hearings the EPA decided to move forward with its large mine veto. Pebble gained a significant victory in court Nov. 24 when a federal judge ordered the EPA to stop its 404(c) process as a second suit against the agency plays out. The mining group is alleging that the EPA was drafting plans to kill the mine years before work on the assessment even began. Alaska’s voters resoundingly passed a ballot measure in the Nov. 4 elections that would force large Bristol Bay mines such as Pebble to get legislative approval. Pebble board chair John Shively said the group did not campaign against Ballot Measure 4 because it is unconstitutional and will fail when challenged. — Elwood Brehmer Donlin gets Native corp. approval Donlin Gold LLC got a boost for its mega-gold project June 8 when it officially reached an agreement with The Kuskokwim Corp. that gives the mining company surface access to corporation land. Donlin Gold would use the land to access its claims if the $6 billion project moves forward. Located along the upper Kuskokwim River in Western Alaska, the Donlin Creek mine would be the largest gold mine in the world if it is developed. Donlin holds claim to an estimated 34 million ounces of recoverable gold. As it is currently proposed the project would stretch from the west side of Cook Inlet, where a 312-mile buried natural gas pipeline would be built to feed a large power plant at the mine. From the south and west barges up the Kuskokwim River would supply the mine with other materials. In October, Donlin project owners Barrick Gold and NovaGold said the Donlin Creek environmental impact statement is about half done and a draft is on schedule for a 2015 release. Work began on the EIS in 2012. The Alaska Department of Natural Resources held public comment meetings in fall as it reviewed Donlin’s pipeline right-of-way application. — Elwood Brehmer Pogo, Fort Knox eye expansion Gold prices aren’t where gold miners hoped they would be in 2014 but two of Alaska’s largest producing mines in Interior Alaska, the Fort Knox and Pogo mines, are still doing well. Fort Knox, a low-grade surface mine northeast of Fairbanks, was expected to produce about 390,000 ounces of gold in 2014. That’s down from 421,641 ounces in 2013, but it is enough to keep Fort Knox in the No. 1 spot among Alaska’s gold producers. Fort Knox has been producing since 1996 using a mechanical ore-crushing and processing system as well as a heap leach chemical treatment process. The company is also exploring untested new ground near the mine, searching for additional resources. The mine employs about 630, the vast majority living in Fairbanks and commuting to the mine; Fort Knox pays about $81 million in annual payroll. Pogo, about 85 miles east of Fairbanks, was expected to produce about 330,000 ounces of gold in 2014, an amount similar to 2013. Pogo is an underground mine tapping gold ore in quartz veins from two zones, the “Leise,” which has supported the bulk of the ore production to date, and “East Deep,” an adjacent deposit that began contributing to production in 2013. Additional gold resources are being found in adjacent deposits, which are still being explored. One is “North Zone,” and another is “South Zone.” Another nearby deposit, labeled the “4021 area,” has also been identified. Currently the mine has 4.97 million ounces of unproduced gold reserves, enough to operate until 2019, but the company is confident additional reserves will be added. Pogo employs about 314 with an additional 80 contactor employees, which increases to about 180 in the summer. Pogo has an annual payroll of about $38.5 million. — Tim Bradner Greens Creek receives key permit The Greens Creek Mine near Juneau had a good year in 2014, and the stage is set for Hecla Mining Co., the mine owner, to remain a major employer in the Southeast region for years to come. Greens Creek received its U.S. Army Corps of Engineers permit late in 2014 for a long-planned expansion of the waste tailings storage facility, which will allow the mine to develop more resources and extend its operating life. The Corps issued a Section 404 permit under the Clean Water Act. Greens Creek has operated for almost 25 years on a 27-square-mile land tract in the northern part of Admiralty Island, west of Juneau. The mine is within the Tongass National Forest. Greens Creek is a multi-metals mine producing an ore containing mainly silver, but also zinc and gold. It is the largest silver mine in North America. Hecla Mining Co., the owner, expects to produce between 6.5 million and 7 million ounces of silver and about 55,000 ounces of gold from the mine in 2014. As of early 2014 the mine’s proven and probable reserved were estimated at 92.5 million ounces of silver; 713,000 ounces of gold and 678,000 tons of zinc and 256,000 tons of lead. Hecla is still exploring at Greens Creek, and new mineralized areas have been found that can be tapped using the mine’s current infrastructure. The mine employs about 400, most who live in the nearby Juneau community and commute daily to the mine by boat. — Tim Bradner Ambler ambles along NovaCopper Resources and NANA Regional Corp. continued a long-range assessment of mineral resources in the Ambler Mining District and at Bornite, both in the western Brooks Range and northeast of Kotzebue. NovaCopper, a Canada-based “junior” exploration company, and NANA, the Alaska Native regional corporation based in Kotzebue, are in a joint-venture agreement to explore discoveries at Bornite, on the upper Kobuk River, and the Arctic Deposit, which is nearby and in the Ambler district. NovaCopper has been managing a drilling and exploration program at both locations. There was no drilling in 2014 but NovaCopper undertook an evaluation of core tests drilled years ago by Kennecott Exploration, the original owner at Bornite, that were never fully tested. Results of the analysis, released Oct. 28, showed significant contents of copper in five of 37 historic drill tests, with copper content ranging from 0.5 percent copper to 1.18 percent copper, with a “cutoff” grade of 0.5 percent. NovaCopper and NANA have found significant grades of copper from its earlier drilling at Bornite as well as drilling at the Arctic deposit. The Ambler and upper Kobuk River copper resources have been known and explored for decades. The first discovery at Bornite, by Kennecott, was in the 1960s. The remote location of the discoveries has so far prevented development of a mine, but the state of Alaska is now engaged in permitting a 300-mile resource development road into the area from the Dalton Highway to the east. The Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority, the state’s development corporation, is leading the access road initiative. However, no road would actually be built by AIDEA until there is a commercial mine project, at Arctic, Bornite or at other nearby minerals discovery sites, that would pay for the road. Former Gov. Sean Parnell had $8 million in his capital budget to advance the road effort, but new Gov. Bill Walker removed that and all other capital spending that didn’t generate a federal match when he released his budget Dec. 15. — Tim Bradner

Federal judge orders EPA to halt pending Pebble action

The Environmental Protection Agency’s proposal to block Pebble mine is on hold after a Nov. 24 federal court ruling. U.S. Alaska District Court Judge H. Russel Holland ordered a preliminary injunction be put in place on the EPA’s Clean Water Act Section 404(c) process in the Bristol Bay region. The ruling came immediately after oral arguments on a motion for the injunction filed by Pebble Limited Partnership in its lawsuit against the EPA. Pebble claims the 1,000-plus page Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment, the document on which the EPA based the need to take action against mine development, is biased and flawed. Pebble CEO Tom Collier said in a formal statement the ruling is important because it prevents the EPA from continuing its process to ban the mine. If a final agency determination were reached prior to a final ruling in the case, the court could not repeal the agency’s action. “The court today granted our preliminary injunction blocking EPA from taking any further steps in the 404(c) regulator process it has initiated at Pebble before Judge Holland is able to issue a final decision on the merits of our case,” Collier said Nov. 24. “We expect this case may take several months to complete. This means that for the first time EPA’s march to preemptively veto Pebble has been halted.” The EPA has the authority under Section 404(c) of the Clean Water Act to ban specific development projects it deems would cause a significant adverse impact on fish and wildlife because of fill placement. Trout Unlimited Alaska Director Tim Bristol said in a formal statement the ruling does not prevent the EPA from eventually using the science in the assessment. Trout Unlimited has been a lead organization in the fight against Pebble. “This decision is far from damning, but it does nonetheless represent an unfortunate example of Pebble throwing up legal and procedural road blocks against scientific fact and the will of Alaskans, which has consistently spoken out against Pebble mine,” Bristol said. “Moving forward, we hope the legal process is quickly and fully resolved so the people of Bristol Bay can get back to living their lives, running their businesses and making investments with an eye on a fish-filled and mine-free future.” It is the second suit Pebble has brought against the agency heard by Holland. He dismissed a prior case Sept. 26 on several of Pebble’s claims because the EPA has not made a final decision. The State of Alaska intervened on Pebble’s behalf in that case. The agency announced its intent to begin the 404(c) process in late February, about a month after the final Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment was released. It typically takes about a year to complete. EPA Region 10 officials are quick to note the authority has only been used 13 times since the Clean Water Act was enacted in 1972. While the law does not specify when the agency can use its authority, the copper-gold Pebble project would be the first instance in which it was used prior to a formal project plan being released. Pebble’s first lawsuit challenged the EPA’s authority to block a project prior to a wetlands permit application being submitted to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which evaluates such applications. The EPA has ultimate say, however, and can veto a project even if the Corps approves the application. Holland ruled that Pebble attorneys raised “serious questions” as to whether working groups that contributed to the watershed assessment document were subject to the Federal Advisory Committee Act, which attempts to ensure the advice agencies receive from such groups is objective and the process is public. Pebble contends emails sent as the assessment was formed from 2011-2014 between EPA Region 10 staff and mine opposition groups including Trout Unlimited Alaska and the United Tribes of Bristol Bay prove the agency had a predetermined agenda to block the mine. The EPA Inspector General’s Office initiated a review of the Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment earlier this year. That review is ongoing. Pebble attorney Roger Yoerges argued anti-mine groups and the agency worked together to form the assessment. “The EPA specifically reached out to groups who it knew what their opinion was,” Yoerges said. The agency was seeking advice to advance a common agenda, he said. Department of Justice civil division attorney Brad Rosenberg for the EPA said the agency had an “open door” policy to groups on both sides of the issue and did not shun Pebble while it developed the assessment, as the mine developers claim. “The fact that EPA was receptive to the belief of multiple environmental groups should not be a surprise to anyone,” Rosenberg said. Pebble’s Collier said after the ruling that the company’s accusation that the EPA colluded with environmental groups is based on documents disclosed in Freedom of Information Act requests. “The documents we have been able to review thus far disclose more than 500 contacts between EPA and activists,” he said. “We fully expect that once we have access to all documents that there may be many times that number.” Holland also said Pebble is likely to suffer irreparable harm if it is not allowed to litigate the case because, “The 404(c) action underway now could result in ‘no action,’ but it isn’t headed that way,” Holland said in preparation to issue his ruling. He ruled against Pebble’s claims that it faced economic hardship as a result of the EPA’s actions. The preliminary injunction would only lead to a temporary delay in the agency’s actions at this point, he said, as public testimony on the Pebble 404(c) process has closed. After issuing his ruling, Holland ordered Pebble to file an amended complaint. He called its original 138-page complaint an “outrageous violation” of court procedure guidelines. Whether the EPA would suspend its motion to dismiss and file a second dismissal motion based on a revised complaint, Holland asked the parties to meet and agree on a procedural path forward by Dec. 2. Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

Record crowd expected at miners convention

The annual Alaska Miners Association convention will set another attendance record this year with about 1,000 signed up to attend so far, AMA Executive Director Deantha Crockett said. It is also marks the 75th anniversary of the AMA, making it one of the state’s oldest trade and professional organizations. The AMA was organized in 1939 to give the mining industry, then one of the territory’s two industries (the other being fishing) a way to present a united front in dealing with new land policies being formed in Washington, D.C. Not much has changed, Crockett said. The Alaska statehood movement, which even then was gaining strength, was also an issue the mining industry wanted to be involved in. This year, however, the convention has also moved to a new venue and larger spaces at the Dena’ina Civic and Convention Center in Anchorage, having outgrown the capacity of the downtown Sheraton, its location in previous years. The event will take place from Nov. 3 to Nov. 9. Attendance has been steadily climbing at AMA’s annual gatherings. There were 700 last year, setting a record then, and 500 to 600 in previous years, Crockett said. These aren’t the best times for the minerals industry worldwide but there’s continued interest in Alaska because of the state’s huge natural resource endowment, and a heavy turnout at the AMA convention signals that. It also indicates concerns over forces adversely affecting mining, such as government policy changes and environmental initiatives, and the miners’ annual conference is seen as a good way to hear directly from top agency officials, Crockett said. This year, she said, mining industry leaders from Nevada and Colorado will make presentations on policy problems in their state. Similar issues may crop up in Alaska. One session that will be no doubt well-attended will be luncheon sponsored by the miners and other business groups on Nov. 5, in which Ralph Samuels, a former legislator and House majority leader, will give his analysis of state election results following the general election Nov. 4, with the victorious statewide candidates invited to attend. Phillip Baker, CEO of Hecla Mining Co., will speak at the Thursday luncheon. Hecla is owner and operator of the Greens Creek Mine near Juneau. Crockett said there will be keen interest in learning about problems with mine tailings dam elsewhere as these will influence Alaska regulators’ responses to proposals for tailings facilities on new projects here. On that topic, British Columbia’s Minister of Energy and Mines, Bill Bennett, will give a presentation on his government’s response to the Mount Polley tailings facility failure. That is scheduled for Nov. 5 at 3 p.m. Crockett said Bennett will discuss the investigation now underway on the failure, why it was ordered and what is being studied. “People here are interested in what we can learn from this. There are a lot of lessons,” she said. Earlier on Nov. 5, AMA will also have a special panel session on tailings dam safety, moderated by Bob Loeffler, a veteran minerals consultant. That is scheduled for 8 a.m. Nov. 5. There will be a panel on national issues affecting mining, a hot topic with the pending preemption effort of mining in the Bristol Bay region by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Hal Quinn, CEO of the National Mining Association, will give an update on EPA issues including the pending rules on power plant emissions, an issue of keen concern to the coal industry. Tom Collier, CEO of Pebble Partnership, will give the latest on EPA’s efforts on a Clean Water Act Section 404c preemption at Pebble as well as his company’s litigation against the agency on the issue. Crockett said a panel on ballot initiatives, from the Alaska perspective as well as experience in others states, will be of keen interest given the recent ballot propositions here, including Ballot Measure 4 that intends to require legislative approval for any large-scale mining in the Bristol Bay area. Tim Crowley, executive director of the Nevada Mining Association, will discuss a ballot measure in Nevada dealing with state mineral taxation. The proposal is to clear away existing Nevada statutes on minerals taxes as a preliminary step toward enacting a new tax code, which the mining industry fears will be more onerous. Stuart Sanderson, executive director of the Colorado Mining Association, will discuss the state’s implementation of its new marijuana measure (a similar law could be approved for Alaska under Ballot Measure 2) and the anti-“fracking” initiative in that state. Although this deals with oil and gas and the practice of hydraulic fracturing, the ripple effects could eventually be felt by the mining industry. This panel is set for Thursday, Nov. 6, at 10 a.m. Thursday afternoon, Nov. 6, there will be discussions of new technologies, including new transportation concepts such as dirigibles and unmanned aerial vehicles. Robert Boyd, of Lockheed Martin, will discuss his company’s work on dirigibles, which are of interest to the mining industry as a possible vehicle for heavy-lift to and from remote, roadless sites. This is set for 3 p.m. A review of AMA’s 75-year history, which is really the story of the mining industry, is scheduled for Friday morning, Nov. 7. People who were active in important events in recent years, like the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971 and the Alaska National Interest Lands and Conservation Act of 1980, will reflect on those events, which are still affecting the industry today. Chuck Hawley and Paul Glavinovich, two veteran geologists who were active in those issues, will talk, along with J.P. Tangen on federal law changes; Tom Bundtzen of Fairbanks; former AMA director Steve Borell, and Duane Gibson, a Washington D.C. lobbyist who represents mining interests including the AMA.

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