DNR approves Pebble permit, with conditions

  • An exploration site at the Pebble prospect is seen from the air in this photo from 2010. The state Department of Natural Resources issued new miscellaneous land use permits for the Pebble prospect owners to conduct reclamation and monitoring activities at hundreds of boreholes for the next 12 months. (Photo/Andrew Jensen/AJOC)

Natural Resources Commissioner Andy Mack approved Pebble Limited Partnership’s long-awaited land-use permit April 11 with stipulations that include a $2 million bond to backstop exploration cleanup.

The permit is for 12 months; Pebble had sought a permit through 2018.

Pebble applied for the miscellaneous land-use permit, or MLUP, last Oct. 13. MLUP approval for most activities is often little more than a formality, but next to nothing about Pebble is normal either, from the size of the project to the fervor it generates.

That DNR received more than 2,000 comments on the annual Pebble MLUP lends credence to that fact, which Mack acknowledged in a department release.

A vast majority of the commenters supported, at a minimum, increased oversight of Pebble’s activities.

“It is unusual for a state land-use permit to get so much public attention, but it is not unusual for DNR to add stipulations to a land-use permit,” Mack said. “We have carefully considered and applied new stipulations to this permit that are reasonable, comply with our legal requirements and address concerns we heard in the comment period.”

It is also unusual for DNR to hold a formal public comment period for an MLUP application. However, a 2015 Alaska Supreme Court decision in one of the numerous court cases surrounding Pebble requires the department to hold a 30-day comment period on permits for the project until DNR drafts regulations in accordance with the decision.

Some level of financial surety typically accompanies an MLUP unless DNR waives the requirement, according to department spokeswoman Elizabeth Bluemink.

Similar performance guarantees have been required for some mining operations in the state and are often sought for non-mining activities on state land as well, Bluemink said.

Pebble spokesman Mike Heatwole described the $2 million guaranty as “very workable,” adding it was not a surprise and had come up in discussions with DNR officials.

Mack wrote in a letter approving the permit that the $2 million figure equals what DNR estimates it would cost for the state to remove Pebble’s on-site equipment and temporary storage facilities and otherwise restore the area should the company for some reason fail to meet its obligations.

The money will eventually be returned to Pebble if the company completes the restoration work.

Heatwole said other stipulations in the permit approval, such as an expectation Pebble will appropriately abandon 138 boreholes this year and inspect at least 300 of the 612 exploration holes that are to remain open, were part of a summer work plan the company submitted to the department about a month ago.

The 612 holes will stay open for ongoing monitoring and additional data collection.

More than 1,300 boreholes have been drilled on the claims by several companies since 1988, according to DNR.

“We’re focusing on getting a (MLUP) permit and continuing our summer work program,” Heatwole said in a brief interview.

That work program will largely resemble what Pebble has done in recent years — monitor and maintain drill sites and equipment, according to Heatwole. No further exploration is planned at this point.

Bluemink also noted that the performance guaranty is not a reclamation bond, which Pebble is not required to post for its work to date.

The State of Alaska generally requires mining project operators to post a reclamation bond if the activity disturbs more than five cumulative acres. Because Pebble chose to conduct operations via helicopter, thus reducing its footprint, and all of its temporary facilities were placed on “tundra mats” to limit impacts to vegetation that will grow back once the equipment is removed, the company has yet to meet the five-acre threshold, according to DNR officials.

Pebble Partnership holds title to mining claims covering 266,300 acres of state land near Iliamna Lake at the headwaters of the Bristol Bay drainage. The location of the proposed gold and copper mine in the midst of one of the world’s most prolific salmon-rearing watersheds has naturally made it an extremely controversial project.

A study released last November and commissioned by the United Tribes of Bristol Bay, a Dillingham-based nonprofit that has led the charge against Pebble, alleged the company had neglected many of its work sites leading to limited but unnecessary environmental damage.

The report led to increased public interest in the usually low-key MLUP review.

At the time DNR officials said Pebble was in compliance with its state permits and the Montana-based Center for Science in Public Participation, which conducted the study, may have misinterpreted some of Alaska’s regulations in drawing its conclusions.

United Tribes of Bristol Bay and other environmental and fishing groups lauded DNR’s permit contingencies as needed oversight protections.

A short press release from Pebble’s parent company Northern Dynasty Minerals Ltd. says Pebble is closely reviewing the MLUP approval.

“The Alaska Department of Natural Resources and other state agencies have had an active oversight presence at the Pebble project site for more than a decade and have confirmed that Pebble is a well-managed exploration project. We will continue our site operations in 2017 in full compliance with the state’s permit conditions, and in a manner that protects the broader public interest in the lands and resources surrounding the Pebble property,” Pebble CEO Tom Collier said in a formal statement.

Heatwole added the permit approval checks off the first of several “high level” goals Pebble Partnership has for 2017.

Next on the list is settling its lawsuit against the Environmental Protection Agency, which is on hold for ongoing negotiations. After that, Northern Dynasty hopes to secure another large investment partner to help fund the expensive, multi-year federal Clean Water Act and National Environmental Policy Act permitting processes that will require additional field study.

He said Pebble still plans to apply for the environmental permits this year if its parent can find another partner for the project, as Collier indicated in a January investor presentation.

Northern Dynasty’s previous partner in Pebble, London-based Anglo American Plc, pulled out of the project in 2013.

04/12/2017 - 12:33pm