Mining

Trilogy announces successful drilling at third Ambler prospect

The company with two copper prospects in a remote, mineral-rich region of Alaska is adding another. Trilogy Metals Inc. announced on Nov. 7 that it hit copper, zinc, silver and small amounts of gold and lead during summer drilling at its Sunshine prospect in the Ambler mining district northwest of Fairbanks. The Vancouver-based junior mining firm hit zones of at least 0.87 percent copper in each of the six boreholes tested; all but one of the holes contained copper zones with mineralization excess of 2.08 percent, according to the exploration report. For comparison, a 2016 research article published in the scientific journal Resources concluded that the average ore grade at currently producing copper mines worldwide is approximately 0.62 percent. However, the high costs associated with developing isolated prospects in Alaska often require much better-than-average resources to justify turning a prospect in the state into a producing mine. Zinc occurrences in the same zones were largely in excess of 2 percent, with silver densities reaching 74 grams per metric ton of ore. The results are from 1,356 meters of drilling over the six boreholes. Trilogy targeted the specific drilling sites following a $2 million electromagnetic geophysical survey the company conducted last spring over much of the Ambler prospect belt. Interim Trilogy CEO James Gowans said in a formal statement that Sunshine is just one in a host of prospects across the large Ambler mining region, “which has the potential to be one of the most prolific mining districts in the world.” “The grades and widths of mineralization found at the Sunshine prospect are very similar to what we see at the Arctic project and I expect that with more drilling we can delineate more mineralization at Sunshine,” Gowans said. Other companies are exploring other prospects in the Ambler region, which stretches for roughly 75 miles along the southern flank of the western Brooks Range in the upper reaches of the Kobuk River drainage. Trilogy is also working in other parts of the area, including its aforementioned and advanced Arctic prospect, about eight miles east of Sunshine. Former CEO Rick Van Nieuwenhuyse said last spring that Trilogy leaders hope to complete a feasibility study of Arctic early next year. Environmental permitting for Arctic should start once the environmental impact statement for the controversial, state-sponsored 211-mile Ambler Mining District Industrial Access Project is closer to complete as well, he said. The high-grade Arctic prospect covers approximately 36 million metric tons of ore with 3.07 percent copper, 4.23 percent zinc, 0.73 percent lead and 47 grams per ton of silver. Generally referred to as the Ambler road, the up to $350 million access project is a state-led plan for an unimproved industrial road off of the Dalton Highway to reach the large Ambler mining district. Under the plan, the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority would build the road via revenue bonds once it secures commitments from mining companies that would ultimately fund the project through tolls and use agreements. The road project has drawn opposition from local Alaska Native organizations, residents of the area and environmental groups who are worried the project will disrupt caribou migrations important for subsistence harvests. The proposed mines have also drawn scrutiny for potential impacts to salmon and whitefish runs in the Kobuk River drainage. In addition to the young Sunshine and mature Arctic prospects, Trilogy is also working on the mid-stage, copper-based multi-metal Bornite prospect to the south of the other two. The company completed more than 7,600 meters of drilling this year from 10 boreholes in and around the known resource. The $9.2 million drilling program at Bornite was funded by Australia-based South 32 through an agreement the companies signed in 2017. According to a company report issued prior to this year’s drilling, Bornite contains indicated resources of more than 40 million metric tons of ore holding an average of 1.02 percent copper for 913 million pounds of the metal. ^ Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

Mineral exploration spending strong for second year; Icy Cape grows

Mineral exploration is on the rebound in Alaska and a unique state-owned prospect is showing promise. Nearly $150 million was spent prospecting mostly for large mine opportunities in the state last year and likely in 2019, according to Curt Freeman, president of Fairbanks-based Avalon Development Corp. That is up from just more than $50 million three and four years ago, but off from a peak of roughly $350 million per year in the late 2000s, when substantial work was being done at the Pebble deposit. The figures were compiled with data from the Alaska Department of Natural Resources. Freeman tallied 18 large exploration projects across the state for “every metal under the sun,” he said. “It was a pretty good year for exploration all the way around.” However, he noted Alaska’s six metal mines are all large operations and the state does not have a single mid-sized producing mine. As is the challenge for many industries in the state, the high cost of operating in very remote places often requires very large and inherently complex projects to be economic. The Alaska Mental Health Trust Land Office is exploring a growing heavy mineral prospect it owns at Icy Cape on the exposed Gulf of Alaska coast between Cordova and Yakutat. Trust Land Office minerals and energy manager Karsten Eden said simply the prospect of industrial-use minerals is commercially viable and contains significant quantities of in-demand minerals such as garnet and epidote — as well as gold. “Every sample has gold in it,” Eden said of the drilling work that’s been done there. He spoke Nov. 5 at the Alaska Miners Association convention in Anchorage. When it started in 2017, the focus of the exploration was on the beach sands that underlie the spruce forests along the coast at Icy Cape. Now the resource delineation work has shifted to the deeper sediments, Eden said. Since 2017 the Trust Land Office has had 13,000 feet of core samples drilled from boreholes down to 300 feet, he said. The Trust Land Office manages roughly 1 million acres of land across Alaska for real estate and resource development purposes, the proceeds of which go to fund the Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority’s work to benefit Alaskans with mental health and addiction challenges. Specifically, the multi-heavy mineral prospect consists of abrasives garne and epidote, and zircon, magnetite and gold. They are present across most of the 48,000-acre property, which is closed to public access, but the exploration team is interested in 23,000 acres of it, according to Eden. The magnetite allowed the Trust Land Office to fly a magnetic survey of the area to better hone in on prospective areas to drill, he said. Different layers of the area’s marine sediments are largely comprised of similar minerals, just in consistently different sizes, he said. That can be beneficial when marketing the processed minerals as certain grain sizes are used for certain applications. “Where you have the highest concentration of heavy minerals you definitely have the highest concentrations of gold,” Eden said. Tests of the minerals’ characteristics by industrial users and labs indicate Icy Cape has “elements of prime quality,” he added, also noting that industrial manufacturers want large prospects that they can count on to produce for 15 years or more. Garnet, a fairly hard, multi-use mineral is in high demand, according to Eden. “The main producer India doesn’t export anymore so people are looking for garnets,” he said. Further resource evaluation will be coordinated with the ongoing logging of various portions of the property to take advantage of increased access to portions of it, according to the Trust Land Office. Eden said the next steps are to compile a formal resource evaluation while looking for a private partner to lead development of the prospect. That work would likely include building a port facility to handle supply shipments and mineral exports. “Gold you can always fly out,” he said. Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

RDC conference features positives, challenges, plus BP and Hilcorp

Conference season is in full swing in Alaska and the annual gathering of the players in the state’s biggest industries is right around the corner. The Alaska Resources Conference hosted by the Resource Development Council for Alaska is slightly later than normal this year. It will be held Nov. 20-21 at the Dena’ina Center in Anchorage. The conference will focus on Alaska’s oil and gas, mining and timber industries and the energy in those sectors is positive these days noted RDC Executive Director Marleanna Hall. Alaska Gov. Michael J. Dunleavy has committed his administration to removing impediments to development across the state and at the federal level the Trump administration has largely done the same. Under Trump, the Army Corps of Engineers in September finalized revisions to the scope of the hotly debated Waters of the U.S. Rule, changes which scale back the jurisdiction of the corps and the Environmental Protection Agency to require Clean Water Act permits for some development projects. In mid-October, U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue announced the administration’s preference to fully exempt the Tongass National Forest from the Roadless Rule, a change long sought by timber and mining advocates in the state. Additionally, an oil and gas lease sale for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge coastal plain is expected late this year or early next, marking the culmination of decades of effort to access the billions of barrels of oil estimated to reside there. While those are all positive developments for those sectors, Hall said she expects to hear plenty from oil industry speakers talk about their biggest upcoming challenge. “I think we’ll have a lot of messaging on why the oil tax initiative should be rejected again,” she said. The sponsors of the Fair Share Act voter-driven initiative are currently gathering the signatures and support they need to get the measure — which aims to raise the state’s collective oil production tax revenue by approximately $1 billion per year — on the ballot in 2020. Rex Rock, CEO of Arctic Slope Regional Corp., long an advocate for opening ANWR to oil exploration, will provide the keynote address Nov. 20. Hall said she is particularly intrigued to hear from National Energy Laboratory Director Brian Anderson, who is scheduled to discuss ways to burn fossil fuels cleaner in an era of climate change later that day. The last speakers of the first day, BP Alaska President Janet Weiss and Hilcorp’s Alaska head Dave Wilkins, will cover recent big news in Alaska circles, that being “the passing of the torch,” as Hall described it, of Prudhoe Bay from BP to Hilcorp next year. The second day of the conference will start with talks about two potential megaprojects in the state, the $13 billion Alberta to Alaska railway and Qilak LNG’s recently proposed $5 billion North Slope offshore LNG export terminal. It will conclude with a discussion about the Alaska Roadless Rule revision process by Forest Service officials and Southeast Conference Executive Director Robert Venables. While the conference is largely attended by industry employers, Hall said RDC always encourages students to attend as well so they can gain insight into the industries they could join after graduation. RDC offers free admission to full-time students for its public events. The student registration deadline for this year’s annual conference is Nov. 13. The agenda is at akrdc.org/conference. Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

Alaska Miners Association celebrates 80 years

Mining is one of Alaska’s oldest industries and the Alaska Miners Association exemplifies that. The trade group was founded before World War II and is celebrating its 80th anniversary during its annual convention in Anchorage at the Dena’ina Convention Center Nov. 3-9. Mining continues to be a major industry in Alaska; it employs roughly 13,000 people at small placer and prospecting camps to world-scale mines across the state, according to the Alaska Department of Labor. But even the enduring association doesn’t match the history of mining in Alaska. Commercial mining and Alaska’s “gold rush” years started more than a century before when Russian engineers discovered gold near the Kuskokwim River in 1832, according to the group. The Kuskokwim River valley long supported placer gold operations and today is home to the Donlin Creek gold prospect. With a resource of approximately 33 million ounces, the Donlin mine will be one of the largest open-pit gold operations in the world when it is developed. As for the convention, state Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Jason Brune, a former Anglo American representative, will be the keynote speaker Nov. 6, and he will give an update on the mining-related issues the department has dealt with in the first year of Gov. Michael J. Dunleavy’s administration. Dunleavy’s first public appearance after being elected last year was at the Miners convention, where he emphatically declared Alaska would be “open for business” with him as governor. Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Corri Feige will provide the keynote address Nov. 7, sharing her vision for mining in the state and BLM Alaska officials will discuss new priorities regarding mining on federal lands in the state on Nov. 8, according to materials provided by the association. As is customary, the convention will also feature numerous discussions regarding mining policy in Alaska as well as updates on the plethora of large prospects — from copper and gold to graphite and rare earth elements — across the state. Representatives from several of Alaska’s large producing mines will also discuss what their companies have learned in developing metal prospects in the state’s sensitive environment and harsh climate in presentations Nov. 7. Evening activities will start with a history night and inductions into the Alaska Mining Hall of Fame and the convention will conclude with the Alaska Miners Association’s annual awards banquet.

Estelle gold prospect grows with additional acrage

Another large-scale gold prospect is gaining momentum in Southcentral Alaska. Australia-based Nova Minerals Ltd. announced Oct. 8 that it has secured exploration rights to approximately 25,100 additional acres of state mining claims at its Estelle prospect that sits deep in the western portion of the Alaska Range. The acreage adds to the nearly 29,300 acres the company acquired in November 2017. Located about 110 miles northwest of Anchorage near the divide that separates the Western Alaska Kuskokwim drainage and the Susitna drainage of Southcentral, the Estelle gold prospect was drilled by Anchorage-based Millrock Resources early this decade. Millrock and Canadian Teck Resources ended a joint venture and quit the project in 2016. Nova Minerals drilled 18 boreholes at the Estelle property and re-entered historic drill sites over the summer, according to a late September investor presentation. Company leaders currently estimate the prospect holds 2.5 million ounces of inferred gold resources with smaller accumulations of copper and silver also present. Specifically, Nova Minerals estimates the explored areas of the property hold 181 million metric tonnes of ore averaging 0.43 grams per tonne of gold given a cut-off of 0.18 grams per tonne. However, Nova Minerals Managing Director Avi Kimelman said Oct. 8 that the area drilled last summer — on the northern end of the prospect acreage — accounts for just about 1 percent of the overall Estelle property. For comparison, the producing Pogo underground gold mine near Fairbanks has produced approximately 3.9 million ounces of gold since mining started there in 2006, according to operator North Star Resources Ltd. Nova Minerals is currently contemplating an open-pit mine at Estelle if the project is fully developed, according to company documents. The additional acreage Nova Minerals acquired surrounds the northern portion of the original property that was drilled this year. “The expansion of the Estelle project area reinforces Nova’s commitment to expand our resource ounces and fast-track development across the project area,” Kimelman said in a formal statement. “This will allow us to enact much broader exploration and a discovery vision via the exploration of what we believe to be a regionally significant land package in the world-class Tintina gold belt.” Nova Minerals publications regularly note the Estelle prospect’s location on the southwest edge of the massive Tintina gold belt, which cuts across Interior Alaska generally between the Alaska and Brooks mountain ranges and extends into the Yukon Territory. Estelle is also adjacent to other advanced gold exploration ventures, most notably GoldMining Inc.’s Whistler project, which holds significant indicated copper, gold and silver resources. According to a September investor presentation, Nova Minerals leaders plan to continue drilling in 2020 and eventually combine upwards of 25,000 meters of drill core results with additional resource evaluation data. They also note the Estelle prospect is accessible for drilling year-round — a rarity among remote Alaska mineral projects — via winter trails in the area. The company expects to publish a full resource evaluation of the Estelle prospect late next year, according to the Oct. 8 release. ^ Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

Coal as power source hits 40-year low

The volume of coal burned in the U.S. to generate electricity hasn’t been this low in almost 40 years — and it’s getting lower. After decades with coal at No. 1, natural gas took away the nation’s top spot for power generation in 2016 and hasn’t looked back. Coal-fueled power generation was at 48 percent of the U.S. electricity supply in 2008, down slightly from 50 percent in 1968, but it’s been in a steep downhill run the past decade. Coal’s share of the power mix plunged to 28 percent in 2018, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. The EIA projects coal’s share of electricity generation to fall to 25 percent in 2019 and 22 percent in 2020. And it’s not just low-cost natural gas that’s eating away at coal. It’s renewable energy. Electricity from renewables passed coal-fired power in April for the first time ever, the EIA reported. Renewable sources — which the EIA defines as hydroelectric, wind, solar, geothermal and biomass — provided 23 percent of total electricity generation to coal’s 20 percent for the month. It was a little bit of a seasonal anomaly, the agency explained, as overall U.S. power consumption is the lowest in the spring, with coal- and gas-fired power plants often undergoing maintenance during the slow period. Record generation from wind and near-record generation from solar contributed to the overall rise in renewables this spring, the EIA reported. Regardless of the asterisk on renewables passing up coal for one month, the EIA expects coal to remain ahead of renewables on an annual basis in 2019 and 2020. Renewables, however, will be the nation’s fastest-growing power source for at least the next two years, the agency said in January, on their way toward someday passing coal for an entire year. The cost for wind and solar power is dropping, making renewables more attractive as utilities, industries and states strive to reach emission-reduction targets. Northern Indiana Public Service Co. wants to be coal-free in 2028. Working toward that goal last year, it accepted bids from energy developers and learned that a mix of wind, solar and batteries would be cheaper than building a new gas plant to replace its retiring coal units, The New York Times reported. “Renewables in our particular situation were far more competitive than we realized,” said Joe Hamrock, chief executive of the company that owns the utility. “It’s hard to see any scenario where coal rebounds,” Joe Aldina, manager of coal research at S&P Global Platts Analytics, was quoted by CNN Business in September. Just since the January 2017 inauguration of President Donald Trump, who pledged during his winning campaign to bring back coal-mining jobs, approximately 15 percent of U.S. coal-fired power plants have retired, according to Platts. The energy reporting and analytics firm expects an additional 10 percent of the nation’s coal fleet will close down in 2019-20. “Coal is going to get phased out over the long term,” Aldina told CNN. Duke Energy, one of America’s largest utilities, announced in September its goal to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. “Retiring coal plants is an important part of achieving this objective,” said Lynn Good, Duke Energy’s CEO. Duke Energy plans to retire seven coal-fired units by 2024. That’s on top of the 49 coal units that have been shuttered since 2010, CNN reported. Besides losing power plants and coal-mining jobs, the industry is losing money and finding itself in bankruptcy court a lot more. More than half a dozen large U.S. coal companies have filed for bankruptcy in the past year, The Wall Street Journal reported Oct. 13, predicting that more companies are headed that way. The bankruptcies follow an even higher number of filings in 2015 and 2016, with the increasingly bad news hitting miners in Appalachia and the Powder River Basin of Wyoming and Montana. “Even if you have a totally clean balance sheet, if you can’t get the coal out of the ground at a price that works you’re going to have a problem,” Fredrick Vescio, a director at investment bank Houlihan Lokey, told the Journal. It’s not just small companies going under as demand for coal heads lower. Murray Energy, the nation’s largest private coal company, reported Oct. 2 it has entered into forbearance agreements on interest payments due on its debt. The move buys time to look at restructuring options. The closed power plants, closed mines and bankruptcies come as the coal market continues to get smaller, regardless of President Trump’s decisions to roll back environmental restrictions on coal-fired plants. The president cannot change the economics of cheap natural gas to generate electricity. Gas prices hit 20-year lows for the electricity-heavy air conditioning months of June and July this summer, averaging $2.40 and $2.37 per million Btu, respectively, according to EIA numbers. Next year could be even lower. Global energy consultancy IHS Markit reported Sept. 12 that the oversupply of gas in the United States could drive average prices in real terms at the Henry Hub benchmark to a level not seen since the 1970s. The analysts are predicting U.S. prices will average $1.92 per million Btu in 2020. At that price, it’s becoming increasingly difficult for power generators to pass up cleaner-burning gas. “I think that a lot of the management and boards of the coal-mining companies were unwilling to admit that this was really going to happen,” Karla Kimrey, a former vice president at Cloud Peak, which had roughly 1,235 employees when it filed for bankruptcy in May, told The Wall Street Journal. “Clearly, President Trump is an advocate for coal, but the ones who really matter are the senior utility executives who are deciding where electricity generation will come from in the future,” the Journal quoted Mark Levin, a managing director and senior analyst at Seaport Global Securities. Generating companies have plans to add more than 150 new gas-fired power plants across the country, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reported earlier this year. Larry Persily is a former Alaska journalist, state and federal official who has long tracked oil and gas markets and projects worldwide. He is the Atwood Chair of Journalism at the University of Alaska Anchorage School of Journalism and Public Communication.

Palmer mine exploration permit on hold pending result of Hawaii water case

The tentacles of a legal battle over wastewater discharges in Maui have reached Alaska. Department of Environmental Conservation officials issued letters on Sept. 9 informing stakeholders that a wastewater discharge permit key to future exploration at the Constantine Metals Resources’ Palmer copper and zinc project near Haines mine would be remanded to Division of Water staff for review. Acting Division of Water Director Amber LeBlanc wrote to Southeast Alaska Conservation Council scientist Guy Archibald that the potential impact to Alaska wastewater discharge permits would be evaluated over approximately 90 days pending the outcome of a case now before the U.S. Supreme Court that originated in Hawaii. After that time, the division could uphold, revise or revoke Constantine’s Waste Management Permit for its Palmer exploration plan, according to LeBlanc. The Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, or SEACC, is one of several groups and individuals who requested an informal review of the project. Archibald said in an interview that DEC issued the wrong permit to Constantine altogether. He and Gershon Cohen, a project director for the group Alaska Clean Water Advocacy, argue the state agency should’ve examined the Palmer exploration plan under a more stringent Alaska Pollutant Discharge Elimination System Permit. They claim the Waste Management Permit for groundwater discharges is insufficient because the wastewater will quickly resurface in nearby Glacier Creek, which feeds the salmon-producing Klehini and Chilkat rivers. “The Waste Management Permit they issued basically allowed water degradation for Glacier Creek,” Archibald said, and does not analyze different options for managing wastewater at the site. Over the past year, Vancouver-based Constantine has been pursuing state approvals for its underground exploration plan. The company hopes to excavate a 2,000-meter tunnel that would serve as a space to conduct exploration drilling and collect geotechnical and hydrologic data, according to the plan submitted to the Alaska Mental Heath Trust Land Office. The Palmer project is located on Alaska Mental Health Trust property. Hawaiian connection The link between the State of Alaska wastewater permits and a Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in the case of Hawai’i Wildlife Fund v. County of Maui comes via the Clean Water Act. In many states, the Environmental Protection Agency administers the National Pollution Discharge Elimination System Program as required by the Clean Water Act. In Alaska, the state took primacy of the program starting in 2008, which allows the Department of Environmental Conservation to oversee the federal pollution discharge elimination system requirements, so long as the state standards are at least as stringent as the EPA’s. In the Maui case, the Hawai’i Wildlife Fund and attorneys for the national environmental law firm Earthjustice contend the County of Maui for decades has been polluting near shore ocean waters by injecting millions of gallons of treated sewage water into the groundwater. The contaminated water — pumped into four injection wells that are about 200 feet deep and roughly a half-mile from the ocean — then resurfaces through the shallow ocean floor near a local beach. The wastewater effluent has damaged coral and other marine life in the area, according to Earthjustice. The groups brought a lawsuit against the County of Maui and in 2014 a federal District Court of Hawaii judge found the wastewater injection well operation violates the Clean Water Act because the wastewater seeping up through the ocean floor can be traced back to the injection wells. The county’s appeal to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals was rejected as well. A three-judge panel of the federal appeals court ruled in February 2018 that the water injection wells are indeed “point sources” that discharged polluted water into a federally regulated navigable water. That makes the wells subject to National Pollution Discharge Elimination System Program regulation, the 2018 ruling states. “Agreeing with other circuits, the panel held that the Clean Water Act does not require that the point source itself convey the pollutants directly into the navigable water,” Ninth Circuit Court Judge D.W. Nelson wrote. “The panel held that the County was liable under the Act because it discharged pollutants from a point source, the pollutants were fairly traceable from the point source to a navigable water such that the discharge was the functional equivalent of a discharge into the navigable water, and the pollutant levels reaching navigable water were more than de minimis.” Had the courts ruled that wastewater is a non-point source pollutant, it would be outside the purview of the Clean Water and instead be subject to state regulations. Maui County further appealed the case to the U.S. Supreme Court and oral arguments are scheduled for Nov. 6. Palmer plan Constantine’s water management plan for Palmer states that groundwater expected to seep into the tunnel would be collected and run through a water management facilities and ponds at the floor of the Glacier Creek valley before being discharged back into the ground via diffusers about six feet below the surface. The two settling ponds are designed to handle 500 gallons per minute and hold up to 358,500 gallons each for 12 hours to allow solid materials to settle out of the water before it is sent back underground. The ponds would have surface spillways to release excess water if they are inundated due to melt water, rain runoff or unexpectedly high levels of seepage into the tunnel, according to the water management plan. Alaska Clean Water’s Cohen wrote in a July 25 request for an informal review by DEC that Constantine’s water management plan does not account for treating the water for residue from explosives used in the metal exploration work or hydrocarbons released from vehicles working in the tunnel or drilling compounds, “which will quickly make their way to fish-bearing segments of Glacier Creek and the Klehini River due to the connectivity of the groundwater to nearby surface waters.” Cohen said in an interview that the wastewater will quickly percolate through the loose glacial till soil that makes up the bottom of the valley and end up in the streams still carrying the contaminants. He wrote further in the review request that analysis of the area’s groundwater has been “wholly inadequate.” “We have no confidence that the operator [or the Department] has any credible knowledge of the eventual fate of the discharges, which will affect nearby salmon habitat and possibly the drinking water wells of nearby residents,” Cohen wrote. DEC staff wrote in a July 17 response to comments on the Waste Management Permit that the permit establishes surface water quality triggers at three sites and includes water quality monitoring at four sites “to assure and document the absence of a surface water discharge.” As it stands, Constantine’s Waste Management Permit is good through mid-July 2024. Constantine Vice President of External Affairs Liz Cornejo said in an interview that the permit delay has not impacted the company’s operations, as it was not planning to start work on the tunnel and other facilities until next year. Cornejo also wrote via email that the company agrees with DEC’s decision to not move forward with the permit, and subsequent construction, until the Maui case is resolved. “Construction of the underground ramp [tunnel] will not begin and no water discharge will occur until we have DEC support and approval,” she wrote. Alaska weighs in Alaska Attorney General Kevin Clarkson joined 19 other state attorneys general in supporting Maui County through an amicus brief filed with the Supreme Court. The states argue the Ninth Circuit’s decision drastically expands the Clean Water Act and would place a huge burden on states, such as Alaska, that have taken on pollution discharge elimination programs. “All told, the ‘fairly traceable’ standard threatens to drown state environmental protection agencies under a wave of newfound responsibility, requiring them to process and issue a swell of technologically challenging and complex NPDES permits to sources that have never before been subject to that process. Handling this flood of new permits will leech already scarce resources from other programs better equipped to address groundwater pollution,” the Supreme Court brief supporting Maui states. DEC spokeswoman Laura Achee said department officials aren’t sure about the implications of the Maui case because it’s still unresolved and therefore they aren’t commenting on issues relating to Constantine’s permit. Further complicating matters is a tentative settlement in the case approved by the Maui County Council on Sept. 20. Earthjustice spokeswoman Liz Trotter said the settlement would have county officials find another way to dispose of the wastewater, pay reclamation fees and most importantly, it would mean the Ninth Circuit’s ruling stands. However, Maui County Mayor Michael Victorino has yet to sign off on the agreement, which is required for it to be valid per the county’s procedures. Victorino’s spokesman Brian Perry said the mayor is weighing his options and has not yet decided whether or not to approve the settlement. “He’s doing his due diligence and giving the case the attention it warrants,” Perry said in a brief interview. He said the wastewater injected into the wells is “a step below drinking water” and the half of it not put into the ground is used by area farmers and property owners for irrigation. County officials view the issue as one over home-rule, not a debate over environmental laws with national implications. “Our concern is our own wastewater system, period,” Perry said. He added that the county would like to reuse all of the water as Earthjustice wants, but developing such a system could be prohibitively expensive. “The water has to go somewhere because people aren’t going to stop using the bathroom,” Perry said. Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

Exploration resumes for gold west of Cook Inlet

A new company is restarting exploration at a long-dormant gold prospect on the west side of Cook Inlet. Newly formed HighGold Mining Inc. started drilling at the Johnson Tract prospect in late August. The Vancouver-based mining junior also announced Sept. 23 that it had started trading on the Canadian TSX Venture Exchange. HighGold CEO Darwin Green said in a formal statement that the company is starting with approximately 2,000 meters of total drilling in eight to 10 boreholes. The data derived from that work, combined with historic drilling results, will inform the first official resources estimate of the prospect, according to Green. That document is expected to be completed early next year. The Johnson Tract prospect sits on Cook Inlet Region Inc., or CIRI, in-holdings within the boundaries of Lake Clark National Park and Preserve. Last year CIRI leased 20,900 acres of the property to Vancouver-based Constantine Metal Resources Ltd. for 10 years. Several Southcentral Alaska Native village corporations also own surface rights to land there, while CIRI holds the subsurface mineral rights to those areas. “CIRI prides itself on projects that deliver economic benefits to our shareholders while respecting and preserving the land,” CIRI CEO Sophie Minich said when the Constantine lease agreement was announced in July 2018. “With Constantine’s excellent reputation for responsible mineral exploration and development activities, we know we have chosen an ideal partner.” CIRI spokesman Ethan Tyler wrote via email that the Southcentral region Alaska Native corporation prioritizes striking a balance between developing its resources and protecting land for future generations. He added that the Johnson Tract prospect is one of CIRI's numerous land selections with known mineral potential and it has been the company's intent to develop those prospects when the economics make sense. "HighGold's management team and board of directors are a proven technical team and have a track record as trusted operators with a reputation for safety and quality work," Tyler wrote. "This, combined with CIRI's reputation of excellence and land stewardship, demonstrates CIRI's mindfulness to any public concerns regarding resource development." HighGold's Green has also been part of Constantine's executive leadership, with a focus on exploration. The multi-metal Johnson Tract deposit sits about 10 miles from tidewater near Tuxedni Bay, about 125 miles southwest of Anchorage. HighGold is a spin-out of Constantine, which is also exploring the Palmer copper prospect in the Chilkat River valley north of Haines. HighGold also took over Constantine’s Munro-Croesus gold project in eastern Ontario. According to the mining company, the lease with CIRI calls for annual payments of $75,000 for the first five years, doubling to $150,000 per year for the second half of the term. HighGold is also required to invest $10 million into the Johnson Tract prospect over the 10 years, with $7.5 million of that coming in the first six years. If the decision is made to ultimately build a mine — currently envisioned as an underground operation — CIRI could obtain a 25 percent interest in the project at that time, according to HighGold. The Alaska Native regional corporation would also receive net smelter royalties of 2 percent to 4 percent if a mine is developed. The exploration company acknowledges Johnson is a relatively small prospect, but one that has the potential for very high grades of ore based on the prior drilling work. Anaconda mining company drilled 88 holes at Johnson totaling more than 26,800 meters between 1982 and 1995 and a September HighGold investor presentation calls the area a regional opportunity “with multiple underexplored satellite prospects.” The prior drilling revealed gold resources in excess of 10 grams per metric ton in many areas, as well as high-grade zinc and copper ore, according to HighGold. If developed, the mine would require an access road to a port, both of which would need to be built. The CIRI leases also come with access easement rights and the site has an airstrip built for the earlier exploration work, according to the company. Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

Letters fly in latest scrap over potential Pebble investor

One third of the Alaska Legislature sent a letter to a Canadian mining company on Sept. 9 in an attempt to dissuade a potential investment in the Pebble mine project. The correspondence from the bipartisan and bicameral group of 20 lawmakers is the latest in a series of letters to Vancouver-based Wheaton Precious Metals Corp. CEO Randy Smallwood over the past seven weeks from conservation and Bristol Bay-area Alaska Native organizations opposed to the project and Gov. Michael J. Dunleavy, who sought to counter the negative messaging regarding Pebble with a July 30 letter. The legislators — mostly Democrats, two Republicans and House Speaker Bryce Edgmon of Dillingham, who changed his affiliation from Democrat to independent this past session — specifically responded to Dunleavy’s letter in which the governor stressed his slogan that “Alaska is open for business” and he did not want a potential investor in a major resource development project to be discouraged by those opposed to it. “A fair, efficient and thorough permitting process, without interference and threats from project opponents, is essential to the future economic growth of Alaska,” Dunleavy wrote to Smallwood July 30. “I am committed to making that happen, and once appropriate permits are granted, I am equally committed to removing obstacles that would hinder immediate construction.” The Pebble Partnership is in the midst of the multi-year federal environmental impact statement process to get a key construction authorization from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, but the company would still need to obtain numerous other state and federal agency approvals before construction could commence. According to Dunleavy’s letter, the investment Wheaton is purported to be considering would help Pebble get through the expensive permitting process. Pebble leaders have openly acknowledged they need to secure a financially strong partner to move the project from concept to reality, as Pebble’s parent company and junior mining firm Northern Dynasty Ltd. simply doesn’t have the financial wherewithal to raise the several billion dollars that would be needed to construct the large mine and major support infrastructure. The 20 lawmakers responded by retorting that “Alaska is — and always has been — open for business” in their letter to Smallwood, noting that the Alaska Constitution reserves resource ownership in the state to its citizens with a mandate that they be developed for the maximum benefit of all Alaskans. However, they emphasized that “fish are by far the single most important resource” in the Bristol Bay region.” “In his letter, Gov. Dunleavy assures you that the State will actively defend your company’s investment from ‘interference’ and ‘frivolous and scurrilous attacks.’ Opposition to this project is both local and statewide, and is not frivolous, slanderous or interference,” they wrote. “As individual Alaskans our opposition to this project arises from the potentially severe social, economic, and cultural risks that Pebble Mine represents. As elected officials, our opposition to this project aligns with the interests of our constituents.” The lawmakers continued to cite the late Sen. Ted Stevens’ oft-quoted remark that Pebble “is the wrong mine for the wrong place” and highlighted the fact that several large mining firms have already walked away from the project over the years after spending hundreds of millions of dollars to advance it. They also cited figures from a survey commissioned by Bristol Bay Native Corp., which also opposes Pebble, that found approximately 35 percent of Alaskans support Pebble’s development. Pebble Partnership released its unscientific own survey early this year with figures showing the majority of Alaskans support its efforts. The back-and-forth started July 24 when Bristol Bay-area commercial fishing and Native organizations along with several national conservation groups, including the Natural Resources Defense Council, sent a letter to Smallwood to discourage a potential investment in Pebble. Next came Dunleavy’s letter, followed by an Aug. 29 letter from BBNC CEO Jason Metrokin, which had much the same tone as the legislators’ letter, and finally the Sept. 9 letter. A spokeswoman for Wheaton did not return calls or emails regarding the correspondence to the company. BBNC Lands and Resources Vice President Dan Cheyette in a brief interview called it “entirely inappropriate” for the governor, who oversees the agencies that would be regulating Pebble, to send a letter “that is essentially cheerleading a potential investment in a project that has not yet been permitted.” Resource development advocates similarly criticized former Gov. Bill Walker for taking a formal stance against Pebble, alleging state agencies under his watch would not give the project a fair shake. Dunleavy has consistently taken a neutral stance on Pebble, while he has backed most all other resource development efforts in the state. “While some in the Legislature may disagree, Governor Dunleavy and a large number of Alaskans believe projects should be allowed to follow a fair and transparent permitting process; one that is rigorous, merit-based and prescribed by law,” Dunleavy’s spokesman Matt Shuckerow wrote in response to the legislators’ letter. Pebble spokesman Mike Heatwole wrote via email that the company has had conversations with several potential investors but he could not comment on specific prospective partners. “We continue to have productive discussions with a range of companies about the project and when we have something formal to announce we will do so,” he wrote. The lawmakers did not reference a 2014 ballot initiative that requires any large mining project in the Bristol Bay region to be formally approved by a vote of the Legislature. Voters approved the measure with 65 percent support. Pebble leaders have repeatedly said they believe it is unconstitutional and the company will challenge it when it is necessary to do so. Heatwole said the measure illegally gives “one branch of government (the Legislature) two bites at the apple” in regards to approving Pebble, as it is the Legislature that sets the permitting standards carried out by state agencies. He added that even if it stands a legal test, he doesn’t believe legislators would want to “go on the record (with a vote) killing a job-creating, economically stimulating project” that had already met state permitting requirements. ^ Elwood Brehmer can be reached at e[email protected]

Dunleavy asks federal council to fast-track Southeast rare earths prospect

Gov. Michael J. Dunleavy wants federal decision makers to approve a fast-tracked permitting plan for one of Alaska’s prime metal prospects. The governor sent a letter to federal Council on Environmental Quality Chair Mary Neumayr Aug. 9 urging the council to classify the Bokan Mountain rare earth metals prospect as a High Priority Infrastructure Project. The “High Priority” designation would provide the Bokan project proponents, Nova Scotia-based Ucore Rare Metals Inc., an expedited federal environmental impact statement process aimed at ultimately accelerating development of a mine. The Bokan Mountain rare earth underground mine prospect near tidewater on southern Prince of Wales Island holds more than 4.7 million metric tons of indicated rare earth ore, according to a 2015 resource assessment by. That translates to approximately 63.5 million pounds of collective rare earth metals, which are used in a plethora of high-tech applications, from smartphones to advanced batteries and fighter jets. There are 17 minerals defined as rare earth elements, but “heavy” rare earths — such as europium, terbium, and ytterbium with a greater atomic weight — are the most sought after and are used in products that rely on high-temperature magnets. More common lighter rare earths are used in a plethora of applications including LED displays. Heavy rare earths account for roughly 40 percent of the mineralization at Bokan, according to Ucore. Dunleavy wrote in his letter to Neumayr that the state understands the country’s need for a secure supply chain of rare earths and deeming Bokan a high priority project would help to “ensure the resource is available for development in a reasonable time-frame.” “America’s dependency on a non-allied, foreign-sourced, critical metals supply chain to support national defense, green energy initiatives, and high-tech product manufacturing is an ongoing concern at both the State and Federal levels,” he wrote. In 2014, the Legislature approved the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority to issue up to $145 million in bonds to help finance the Bokan project. Ucore estimated in 2013 that the mine would cost about $220 million to develop. For several years, the U.S. imported all of its rare earth elements until the Mountain Pass rare earths mine in southern California reopened last year. That’s a significant concern for many federal officials and policymakers because China is still the primary source for rare earths globally and the Chinese government — already engaged in a tense trade dispute with the U.S. — could restrict the flow of these critical metals. A drop in rare earth prices in 2015 has shifted Ucore’s attention away from the mine in recent years and towards advancing the processing technologies that would be used its refining complex. Ucore leaders thanked Dunleavy for the letter in formal statements. The company is also working to develop a facility to refine the metals it mines in Ketchikan. Sen. Dan Sullivan said in a recent interview with the Journal that Defense officials told him about 90 pounds of rare earths go into each new F-35 fighter jet. He suggested China manipulates global rare earth markets to keep metal prices low enough to deter development of rare earth mines elsewhere, thus allowing the country to maintain its position as the world’s primary supplier. “A (high priority project) designation would shave significant lead time off of the development of a fully permitted project, prospectively delivering us to construction commencement in just over two years,” Ucore Chief Operations Officer Mike Schrider said. “Our fundamental objective is to establish the Bokan-Dotson Ridge resource as a shovel-ready critical mineral reserve for the rapidly expanding domestic technology and defense industry sectors that are dependent on rare earth metals.” Just four days after taking office in January 2017, President Donald Trump signed an executive order directing the council “to streamline and expedite” the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, process for projects deemed to be a high priority for the nation. The order allows for governors or federal department executives to request the high priority status and specifically lists electric power grid projects as well as telecommunications systems, pipelines and transportation infrastructure as the primary types of projects that could receive the designation, but it does not explicitly list mines. According to the order, Council on Environmental Quality Chair Neumayr has 30 days to decide whether a request for a high priority listing should be granted. Schrider said in a brief interview that Ucore got a letter from Council on Environmental Quality officials Sept. 3 that Dunleavy’s request is being evaluated. A spokesman for the council did not respond to questions in time for this story. Schrider said the company is very appreciative of the governor’s efforts and Ucore is examining ways to move ahead with developing the mine at current metal prices. The next step towards developing Bokan is a detailed feasibility study of the project, according to Schrider. ^ Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

BLM issues first review of Ambler Road project

Bureau of Land Management officials have released the draft review of a proposal by the State of Alaska to build a road that would open a large swath of Interior Alaska to mineral development. The state-owned Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority is leading the permitting and possibly eventually the financing of the long-sought Ambler Mining District Industrial Access Project, which has drawn opposition from environmental groups and some local stakeholders. Commonly referred to as the Ambler road, the 211-mile gravel road would link the remote Ambler mining district in the Upper Kobuk River drainage to the Dalton Highway near the base of the Brooks Range and the rest of Alaska’s road system. BLM identified AIDEA’s plan for the Ambler road as it’s preferred alternative for the project in the draft environmental impact statement, or EIS, released Aug. 23, but the exact route through or around Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve is still undecided. AIDEA applied with BLM to start the Ambler road EIS in March 2017. The one other Ambler road route considered in the draft EIS would start just north of the Yukon River bridge, near milepost 60 of the Dalton. The road would generally angle northwest for 332 miles before terminating near the Ambler River. Fairbanks would be 456 miles from the end of the road using AIDEA’s route and 476 miles from the end of the Ambler road under the alternative route. BLM dismissed the longer route because it would be nearly 60 percent longer than AIDEA’s plan and would have correspondingly more impacts to the environment and be “considerably more costly to construct,” the EIS states. Using a toll road concept, AIDEA would finance the basic gravel road — with an estimated construction cost between $280 million and $380 million — via revenue bonds that would be repaid by the mining companies that would use it to develop the multiple metal prospects in the 75-mile long mining district near the end of the road. According to AIDEA, construction and maintenance costs for the road would total between $475 million and $616 million over 30 years. The authority would return between $988 million and $1.1 billion over that time in tolls, according to its analysis, if the mines are developed. Critics have pointed to the cost of the project, and the fact that there is no guaranteed repayment method, as reasons to scrap the plan. The Wilderness Society contends the current estimate for the road does not consider some of the costs inherent to building in remote northern Alaska, such as constructing a road over permafrost. The group suggests the road could end up costing $1 billion or more as a result. The proposed mines have also drawn scrutiny for potential impacts to salmon and whitefish runs in the Kobuk River drainage and many residents of the area villages are concerned about impacts to caribou in the region that are an important subsistence food source. Numerous village and Tribal governments in the area of the proposed road have issued formal statements of opposition to the project. AIDEA officials insist access to the road will be restricted to mining activity because it would ultimately be paid for through tolls under the plan; there would be no public access to currently isolated hunting areas, which has been another concern of area residents worried about increased activity. The state has spent approximately $26 million of public General Fund money on predevelopment studies for the Ambler road over the years. Rick Van Nieuwenhuyse, CEO of Vancouver-based Trilogy Metals, called the road “crucial to unlocking the incredible mineral wealth” in the Ambler mining district in an Aug. 23 statement. “The development of the Ambler district will lead to generation of thousands of high-paying jobs for the residents of Alaska,” Van Nieuwenhuyse said. “I want to commend the BLM and all cooperating agencies for getting the draft EIS done and look forward to completing the permit for the road.” Trilogy Metals is exploring two multi-metal deposits in the district and Van Nieuwenhuyse has repeatedly stressed that without road access the prospects cannot be economically developed. Trilogy is preparing to start the federal permitting process for the Arctic copper, zinc and precious metal deposit shortly after permitting the road is complete, he has said. Arctic would be an open-pit mine and its expected many of the other prospects in the area would be as well if they are developed. Public comment meetings on the draft Ambler road EIS are scheduled for more than 20 communities during a 45-day comment period. “I realize the importance of this project to the State of Alaska and for the state’s ability to develop its resources and as such, I am committed to ensuring a thorough and comprehensive analysis,” BLM Alaska Director Chad Padgett said in a statement. “This can’t be done without substantive input from stakeholders.” The public comment period is scheduled to start Aug. 30 and run through Oct. 15. Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

Partnership mines old gold while reclaiming Fortymile

Tailings from placer mining operations a century ago have left some streams in Interior Alaska less than ideal for fish. Miners caused the damage, and now miners are trying to fix it. And in the process, they get some gold out of it. Up on Jack Wade Creek, a tributary of the Fortymile River east of Fairbanks, the Salmon Gold project is entering its second year of operation. Existing placer miners in the area are working with RESOLVE, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit, to re-mine old sites on the river and then reclaim the bank with vegetation, restabilization and restored river structure. The goal is to make the rivers more habitable for fish — not just salmon — and to pull out some of the remaining gold in the process. The project just delivered its first batch of gold to refiners, on its way to companies like Apple and Tiffany &Co. So far, it’s only produced about 1,000 ounces among three sites, but RESOLVE and the miners hope to scale it up into a self-sustaining operation in the future, said President Stephen D’Esposito. The project dates back to when he spent time in Canada and saw some of the damage in creeks that had hosted placer mining in the past. “It was the first time I had seen placer and the historical impacts of placer mining — sediment in streams, that kind of thing,” he said. “And about four years ago, when I was doing some work in Alaska, talking to mining industry people, conservation groups, I hadn’t really known that there was a historical impact of placer mining (in Alaska). My thought was if you could pull the gold back out of the tailings and work hard at reclamation, that could be a really interesting combination.” RESOLVE is a nonprofit, and operating mining equipment is expensive. D’Esposito said he quickly realized buying equipment and running its own mining operation wouldn’t be economically feasible, so instead began to look around for partners. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management was already working with placer miners on federal lands on how to allow mining operations while mitigating damage and restoring fish habitat. Dean Race on Jack Wade Creek, Peter Wright on Sulphur Creek in the Yukon Territory and Tod Bauer on Gold Creek near Talkeetna are partnering with the project so far. Through the BLM, D’Esposito said the organization was able to find three miners to work with on Jack Wade Creek, Sulphur Creek and Gold Creek. Operations began in 2018, and though they weren’t expecting to recover any gold that year, they were able to extract about 50 ounces from the Fortymile River drainage. By comparison, the Fort Knox Gold Mine near Fairbanks produced 255,569 gold-equivalent ounces in 2018, according to the Alaska Department of Natural Resources. The production volume was never going to be extremely high, D’Esposito said — the main goal is to find ways to reclaim stream habitat for fish, and the gold can help provide marketable support for that. “In stage one right now, it’s commercial in certain aspects, but it’s mostly philanthropic,” he said. “In the second stage we get to, as we scale up, RESOLVE will keep raising money to figure out how it can work, and we need to find long-term funding sources.” Tiffany &Co. and Apple also help supply some of the funding at this stage, D’Esposito said. As they go forward, the companies hope to scale up to other streams and other miners, allowing the project to become self-sustaining. But at the same time, the companies and miners recognize that the process and model is still experimental, he said. It may also be a step forward on another front: compensatory mitigation. Under the Clean Water Act, all mining companies have to perform offsetting mitigation measures to compensate for the loss of or adverse effects on aquatic resources or habitat. In the past, mining companies have taken such actions as buying land and setting a conservation easement on it, which will prevent it from being developed. But in a case like Salmon Gold, the re-mining of old placer mining sites and the stream reclamation along the way may be able to be counted as a sort of bank for compensatory mitigation purposes, said Steve Cohn, the former state deputy director for resources for the BLM in Alaska. Under the Clean Water Act, some operators act as “mitigation banks.” Essentially, a party can purchase a damaged site and restore it, and work with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to then sell compensatory mitigation credits in connection with that restoration. How many credits the work is worth is up to an interagency review team, but developers who need to account for compensatory mitigation for a project may buy those credits to offset adverse impacts. “(Miners) are required to reclaim, but there’s a difference between reclaiming a site … and restoring it,” he said. “There’s a delta in there, and that delta could be turned into a profit. It hasn’t really materialized yet, but it’s one of the ideas that’s hopefully still being explored.” Cohn said there has been a history of tension between miners and the BLM over standards for reclamation, particularly in areas of the Fortymile River, which has more than a century of mining history but was also designed a Wild and Scenic River by Congress in 1980 in a number of places. Wild and Scenic River designations limit some development activities. In an effort to work with the miners and to restore some of the fish habitat, the BLM began convening meetings with stakeholders through the Resource Advisory Council. “I feel like the miners are very well-intentioned people and they’re willing to try different things if it makes sense to them and it fits within their business model,” Cohn said. “(The Wild and Scenic designation was) almost set up for conflict. It really set up the BLM and the miners to be in conflict in some ways. Both entities have tried hard to find some middle ground, and that resource advisory council really helped serve as a mediator.” D’Esposito said as the project moves forward, RESOLVE will be working on bringing additional placer miners interested in reclamation work in, and how to coordinate the differences in sites as it expands to different creeks. The suppliers are interested, placer miners showed support as well. “There’s an appetite, there’s a hunger out there for this kind of project, which is interesting,” he said. “I’ve really been quite impressed with the placer miners, how interested they are in this working. Even though I think people were skeptical that this would actually produce gold, they’re rooting for us.” Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

EPA rescinds proposed action to stop Pebble mine

A July 30 announcement from the Environmental Protection Agency means it won’t stand in the way of Pebble Partnership receiving the key federal permit it needs to construct what has become one of the most controversial development projects in the country. EPA Region 10 Administrator Chris Hladick on July 30 signed a 28-page notice at the direction of agency leaders that formally removes the agency’s proposed “preemptive veto” that loomed over the Pebble mine project since it was initiated under former President Barack Obama’s administration in 2014. In an interview Pebble CEO Tom Collier said, “This is a good day for Pebble. It’s a day I wish had happened much sooner, but it’s a good day for Pebble.” The EPA retains its power to eventually prohibit the Pebble mine project under the Clean Water Act. Hladick also wrote that the EPA has other avenues to scrutinize the project such as the 404(q) process, which “elevates” the environmental analysis of projects the EPA believes could have significant environmental impacts through a longstanding agreement the EPA has with the Corps of Engineers. Traditionally, the 404(q) has been used before any final actions regarding a wetlands permit are made, according to Hladick. “EPA believes these processes should be exhausted prior to EPA deciding, based upon all information that has and will be further developed, to use its Section 404(c) authority,” he wrote. Collier added he doesn’t see why the EPA would use the 404(q) and potentially go back to a 404(c) veto in roughly a year — when the Pebble EIS is scheduled to be done — after rescinding it now. Formal statements from Pebble and its parent company, Vancouver-based Northern Dynasty Minerals Ltd., thanked Gov. Michael J. Dunleavy for pushing President Donald Trump’s administration to rescind the proposed restriction. Dunleavy has avoided taking a formal stance on the hotly contested project, but said the EPA’s unusual actions to preclude its development send a bad signal to prospective investors in other projects across Alaska. The Pebble deposit is on State of Alaska land. Hladick is a former commissioner of the Alaska Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development under former Gov. Bill Walker, who opposed the Pebble mine, and has served as manager to several local governments across Alaska, including the City of Dillingham, a commercial fishing hub in the Bristol Bay region. Pebble’s opponents, which include conservation groups, area fishing lodges, Bristol Bay tribes and Bristol Bay Native Corp., said in statements that the EPA’s latest action disregards the agency’s namesake responsibility, insisting the mine would endanger the salmon area residents rely on for jobs and subsistence harvests. BBNC President Jason Metrokin stressed that the move is inconsistent with the comments EPA Region 10 officials sent to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers July 1 on the Pebble draft environmental impact statement. Those lengthy written comments —signed by Hladick — stated the project as proposed could have significant adverse environmental impacts and the draft review document lacked important analysis of the project’s downstream impacts, among other things. “A large majority of BBNC shareholders, more than 80%, are concerned about the risks Pebble poses to the region and its fisheries and are opposed to the project. BBNC will always advocate for its shareholders’ best interests and will continue to oppose this inherently dangerous proposal,” Metrokin said. “One thing is certain: the people of Bristol Bay will not stand down. Bristol Bay’s commercial fishery is once again on pace for a record sockeye salmon harvest, but the people, the economy and a way of life that is dependent on these incredible fish are put at risk by today’s decision.” He also asserted that the EPA’s move comes just weeks after agency officials said they had no timeline for revisiting the proposed restriction. Pebble’s Collier said the concerns listed in EPA’s comments on the project review and those from other federal and state agencies were largely the result of overlooked information that is in fact in the roughly 1,400-page EIS. “For the most part the issues that have been raised aren’t of great surprise and aren’t of great significance. I think they’ll be dealt with by the Corps and the third party contractor (working on behalf of Pebble) and we’ll march ahead towards getting our permit,” Collier said. “There’s a reason they call it a ‘draft,’” he added. EPA General Counsel Matthew Leopold directed Hladick in a June 26 memo to reconsider the agency’s proposed 404(c) restriction. Hladick wrote in his 404(c) lifting notice that the Pebble EIS provides an analysis of Pebble’s actual plan, instead of relying on the 2014 Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment, which contemplated several hypothetical mine projects and Pebble claims was written to justify stopping the project. The allegation that the watershed assessment was biased formed the basis for Pebble’s lawsuit against the EPA but it was not invalidated in the 2017 settlement. A January 2016 EPA Inspector General report supported the validity of the assessment, but scolded the agency for months’ worth of missing emails and other procedural missteps related to evaluating the prospective Pebble project. Collier said he doesn’t see a need to invoke the more stringent but somewhat nebulous 404(q). “Sometimes a project just becomes one where decisions are being made at the highest levels of the agency in Washington, D.C.; I think that’s where we are,” Collier said. “So I’m not sure elevation would change a damn thing. You saw that the highest level person at EPA who has not rescued himself and that’s the general counsel (Leopold), was involved in this decision essentially in-lieu of the administrator.” EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler has rescued himself from anything relating to Pebble to prevent a potential conflict of interest stemming from business at a law firm where he previously worked. Leopold sent a letter to Army Corps of Engineers leadership July 25 asking for an extension to the deadline in the 1992 working agreement by which the EPA was supposed to request the 404(q) process be started. That deadline was July 26. Specifically, Leopold asked for EPA officials to have 30 days after the Corps drafts preliminary decision documents for Pebble’s permits before the EPA has to make its decisions regarding the project. That would likely be sometime next year. The EPA began the process to withdraw the proposed Section 404(c) veto — named for where it is found in the Clean Water Act — in July 2017 following the settlement of a lawsuit earlier that year by Pebble against the agency that directed EPA officials to take steps to lift the proposed development prohibition. The settlement, however, did not mandate the proposed veto be lifted, as the EPA has now done, but the action needed to happen before the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers could issue a final wetlands fill permit for the project. The Army Corps of Engineers adjudicates wetlands fill permits on behalf of the EPA for development projects across the country, but the Clean Water Act gives the EPA the authority to override wetlands fill permits the Army Corps issues if it determines the project would have unacceptable impacts to the environment. The EPA has used that authority very sparingly over the decades since the Clean Water Act was passed, but Pebble was the first instance in which it had been invoked prior to a wetlands fill permit being applied for. Pebble applied for its 404 wetlands fill permit in December 2017. In January 2018 in an unexpected move, former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt suspended the 404(c) withdrawal process after the agency took public comments on the move citing “serious concerns” he had regarding the impacts the large Pebble mine and infrastructure project could have on the area’s salmon fisheries, which support an estimated 14,000 commercial fishing jobs in an otherwise economically depressed region. Pebble has long touted that it would provide roughly 2,000 jobs to Alaska, many of which would be high-paying opportunities in inland parts of the Bristol Bay region that see less benefit from the commercial fishing industry. Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

EPA sharply critical of Pebble draft; ‘preemptive veto’ revisited

Environmental Protection Agency headquarters leaders want their Pacific Northwest colleagues to again consider rescinding a proposed restriction for the Pebble mine. At the same time, those regional officials have several questions about the thoroughness of the ongoing environmental review of the project. EPA Region 10 Administrator Chris Hladick signed off on 174 pages of comments July 1 to U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Alaska officials overseeing the Pebble environmental impact statement, or EIS, and the closely related Clean Water Act wetlands fill permit. The public comment periods on the draft EIS and the Clean Water Act Section 404 permit application closed July 1. The 115 pages of EIS comments stress a desire from EPA Region 10 leaders to see significantly more analysis regarding possible damage to the environment and subsistence activities, among other things from the proposed mine and its expansive network of support infrastructure. “Given the substantial potential impacts and risks of the proposed project and weaknesses in the (draft EIS), the DEIS likely underestimates adverse impacts to groundwater and surface water flows, water quality, wetlands, fish resources, and air quality. Therefore, conclusions that the project will not violate applicable water quality and air quality standards should be further supported,” Hladick wrote in an accompanying letter to Corps of Engineers Project Manager Shane McCoy, who is in charge of the Pebble EIS. Hladick is a former commissioner of the Alaska Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development under former Gov. Bill Walker and has served as manager to several local governments across Alaska, including the City of Dillingham, a commercial fishing hub in the Bristol Bay region. As currently proposed, the Pebble project would consist of a 608-acre open pit mine with a depth of nearly 2,000 feed accompanied by two large tailings storage facilities, water management ponds and other structures such as the ore mill, a worker camp and a large power plant. The megaproject would also require support infrastructure including 77 miles of new roads from the mine site to tidewater; an ice-breaking ferry across Iliamna Lake to haul metal concentrates; a deepwater port in Kamishak Bay on the west side of Cook Inlet; and a 188-mile cross-Inlet natural gas pipeline from the southern Kenai Peninsula to the mine site to provide feedstock gas for the power plant. The mine site would cumulatively disturb more than 8,000 acres, nearly half of which would be from the tailings storage facilities. The overall project would result in the destruction of approximately 3,500 acres of wetlands and 80 miles of streams, according to Pebble’s wetlands fill permit application. The EPA determined in 2014 — based on the conclusions of its Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment — that any project resulting in the loss of more than 1,100 acres of wetlands and water bodies in the area would be an unacceptable impact. How Pebble will, or can, sufficiently mitigate the wetlands losses is unclear at this point and is an issue Region 10 officials and many groups opposed to the mine have highlighted. EPA’s comments on the draft EIS insist the roughly 1,400-page EIS does not provide sufficient baseline data regarding the ecological functions of the potentially impacted wetlands and other water bodies; therefore, it is difficult to develop a requisite mitigation plan to offset the project’s impacts. Similar work needs to be done in regards to the prospective impacts on fish populations and their habitat, Region 10 officials concluded. “The EPA recommends significant improvements to: (fish) habitat characterization, assessment, quantification, and spatial referencing; assessment of linkages between the loss and/or degradation of habitat and impacts to fish species and life stages [i.e., incubating eggs, spawning fish, and rearing juveniles]; groundwater and surface water flow characterization at a scale that is more relevant to fish and fish habitat; and analysis of the potential population-level effects and effects on genetic diversity in the context of the Bristol Bay salmon portfolio,” the comment document states. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers adjudicates wetlands fill permit applications under the Clean Water Act. The EPA has the final authority to veto a permit for projects it deems would result in unacceptable environmental damage. The Democrat-controlled U.S. House of Representatives passed a spending bill June 19 with language — known as the Huffman amendment — prohibiting the Army Corps of Engineers from spending money to finalize the Pebble EIS in the 2020 federal fiscal year. That legislation is now under consideration in the Senate. Region 10 officials also note that Pebble’s draft compensatory mitigation plan “includes only a conceptual discussion” of potential means to offset the project’s substantial impacts to wetlands and water bodies and does not mention specific mitigation work the company could employ. Pebble’s draft compensatory mitigation plan in the EIS notes that restoring wetlands near the project — a common practice for project proponents elsewhere in the U.S. — is impractical because the area is undeveloped. As a result, it states the company will likely focus on fish habitat restoration in adjacent watersheds such as the Kenai, Susitna and Matanuska “through culvert rehabilitation and other fish passage improvements that have the potential to benefit the greater Bristol Bay and Cook Inlet watershed areas.” Pebble Partnership spokesman Mike Heatwole said Pebble plans to develop more specific wetlands mitigation measures as the permitting process continues and the exact permit requirements become more clear, which he said is common for large projects such as the mine. According to the EPA, the draft EIS also lacks up-to-date information regarding subsistence activities in and near the project area. Much of the information it contains regarding subsistence harvests is from a 2004 Alaska Department of Fish and Game analysis and other studies up to 2008; Region 10 officials recommend more recent data be collected or more justification as to why the included subsistence data is sufficient be provided. The EPA also suggests the final EIS should include development alternatives for lining the tailings storage facilities to prevent contaminated water from percolating into the water table. Heatwole contends that lining the tailings storage facilities would be counter to the water management plan the company developed specifically in response to concerns about a potential tailings dam failure. Currently, Pebble plans to allow water to flow through the tailings facilities to prevent additional pressure buildup behind the dams. The water will be treated to meet state and federal water quality standards before it is released into the environment, according to Pebble. Many mine opponents stress the water at the mine site will need to be treated in perpetuity — something they argue can’t be guaranteed. Finally, the Region 10 officials contend the draft EIS should contain more information about the impacts of potential further development of the Pebble copper and gold deposit beyond what the company is currently applying for. They note Pebble’s parent company, Vancouver-based Northern Dynasty Minerals has discussed mining the larger, deeper eastern portion of the deposit as recently as 2017. For that and other reasons, the EIS should consider an expanded mining scenario in more detail or explain why evaluating the impacts of additional mining is unnecessary, according to the EPA. Pebble opponents also emphasize that the current smaller, 20-year mine plan is an attempt by the company to get a mine approved that will undoubtedly grow. According to Pebble’s Clean Water Act wetlands fill permit application, the 20-year plan would recover 6.7 billion pounds of copper, 353 million pounds of molybdenum and 10.7 million ounces of gold, while the overall Pebble deposit is estimated to contain more than 80 billion pounds of copper, 5.5 billion pounds of molybdenum and 107 million ounces of gold at higher average grades than the initial mining area. The latest Northern Dynasty investor presentation dated June 2019 also touts the Pebble deposit as containing precious metal resources equivalent to “1.8 percent of all the gold ever mined” in human history. It also contends the draft EIS is “robust and comprehensive” and is the result of more than $150 million worth of environmental baseline data collected over 10 years. The draft document contains “no substantive data gaps” and “no significant impacts” that cannot be sufficiently mitigated, according to Northern Dynasty. ‘Preemeptive veto’ revisted While EPA Region 10 officials were busy critiquing the draft Pebble EIS, the agency’s headquarters leaders in Washington, D.C. were asking them to also revisit lifting a proposed ban on building the mine. EPA General Counsel Matthew Leopold directed Hladick in a June 26 memo to reconsider the agency’s July 2014 preliminary determination that it should use its Clean Water Act authority to prohibit mine development in the Bristol Bay — commonly referred to as a “preemptive veto” of the mine. Leopold noted that the proposed veto determination is still pending five years after it was reached and has not been finalized either way; it must be lifted as an administrative requirement before the Corps of Engineers can approve Pebble’s 404 wetlands permit application. Former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt in January 2018 unexpectedly chose to keep the Obama administration’s proposed determination in place, at the time citing “serious concerns” the agency had about the impacts of mining activity on the Bristol Bay watershed and the salmon it supports. Pebble sued the agency in 2014 alleging the EPA was biased in its proposed action after improperly colluding with anti-Pebble groups to reach its conclusion. A subsequent 2017 settlement company called for the agency to consider rescinding the proposed veto determination. The current situation has caused confusion about where the agency stands in regards to the project, according to Leopold. “To remove any confusion and uncertainty, Region 10 should lift the ‘suspension’ and withdraw the 2014 proposed determination or leave it in place,” Leopold wrote. According to Region 10 officials, Hladick, as regional administrator, is believed to be the decision-maker on the proposed determination, but that decision will be made in close coordination with headquarters officials. Current EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler last year recused himself from all Pebble decisions because he had worked for a law firm that provided services to a client related to Pebble issues. Pruitt had indicated the EPA would hold additional public hearings on the determination if it were ever revisited; however, Leopold wrote that Region 10 should forgo more public input given the several rounds of public comments the EPA and Corps of Engineers have solicited on Pebble in recent years. Leopold also urged Hladick to invoke “elevation procedures” for Pebble under a 1992 EPA-Army Corps agreement that provides for additional scrutiny on projects that could cause “substantial and unacceptable impacts to aquatic resources of national importance.”

BLM lifts Alaska land withdrawals, opens 1.3 million acres

More than 1.3 million acres of federal land in Alaska are a big step closer to being “open for business.” Assistant Interior Department Secretary Joe Balash signed directives June 26 in Anchorage revoking decades-old federal public land orders, in the process making more than 1.3 million acres overseen by the Bureau of Land Management eligible for conveyance to the state, Alaska Native corporations and other uses. Balash said lifting the PLOs will allow the federal government to make good on longstanding commitments to the State of Alaska and Native corporations. “We know that these lands can be unlocked for development responsibly without sacrificing (public) access,” Balash said during a speech to the Resource Development Council for Alaska prior to acting on the orders. Balash also led the Department of Natural Resources under former Gov. Sean Parnell. The PLOs covered two areas: approximately 1.1 million acres of BLM land in eastern Interior Alaska, generally between Delta Junction, Tok and the Yukon River, as well as about 200,000 acres east of the Copper River delta and near the large Bering Glacier. Both areas are known for their mineral potential. The Interior Fortymile region is an area popular among Alaska placer miners and revoking the orders will open the areas to new federal mining claims. The actions take effect in 30 days, according to BLM Alaska officials. According to Balash there are 17 such withdrawals that impact the use of roughly 50 million acres in the state. Most of them were put in place shortly after Congress passed the 1972 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act to allow for careful evaluation of land-use classifications at a time when the State of Alaska and Native corporations were selecting millions of acres to receive from the federal government. Balash said the PLOs were a prudent step when they were put in place but largely are no longer necessary. “This is the first of many (PLO revocations) that will take place over the next several months. We’re going to have a conveyor belt operating here,” he said. Gov. Michael J. Dunleavy, whose administration has stressed the motto that “Alaska is open for business” said Interior Department officials are serious about doing the right thing in lifting the withdrawals. The governor was headed to meet with President Donald Trump, who was making a Air Force One refueling stop at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, and said he would thank the president for his administration’s push to open more land in the state to development. “It’s land that Alaska can use to hopefully create wealth,” Dunleavy said during a press briefing. He has also expressed a desire to transfer more state land to private ownership. The members of Alaska’s congressional delegation also commended the moves, citing the economic development opportunities and the need to fulfill land conveyance commitments to the state and Native corporations. The State of Alaska is entitled to 104.5 million acres from the federal government under the Alaska Statehood Act and to date has received title to approximately 99.3 million acres. In total, Alaska covers roughly 365 million acres and BLM manages about 70 million of those acres. Balash said the state has selections in the eastern Interior-Fortymile area that will become available, but has already “over-selected” acreage for conveyance beyond what it is entitled to, meaning state officials have to determine which selections they want to move forward with. Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

GUEST COMMENTARY: America’s energy, tech and defense future needs mining

As the recent trade war with China has escalated, Beijing has implied that it may retaliate by withholding rare earth minerals. Such a strategic vulnerability — and America’s alarmingly high reliance on imported minerals and metals — is now in the spotlight for all the world to see. China’s rare earth threat underscores just how perilous U.S. mineral import reliance has become. While rare earths are currently the focus, America’s overall reliance on imports of these minerals is indicative of a far larger problem. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the U.S. is now 100 percent import-reliant for 18 minerals and metals, and 50 percent or more reliant for another 30. Despite ever-growing demand for these minerals and metals in defense technologies — such as stealth and night vision technologies — or consumer goods and green energy technology, U.S. import reliance has doubled over the past 25 years. Notwithstanding the nation’s vast mineral reserves, mining investment in the U.S., and production of essential minerals, has steadily declined. The atrophying of the nation’s materials supply chain shouldn’t just be chalked up to the march of globalization and large-scale economic integration. It’s also the product of a decades-long adversarial approach to domestic mining that can be seen in federal land-withdrawals and a mine permitting process that now regularly stretches to 10 years or more. Modern, responsible, and well-regulated mining should be encouraged in the U.S., not pushed aside. To meet the material needs of our advanced tech, manufacturing, energy, and defense sectors, America will need almost exponential growth in the mining and refining of a vast array of minerals and metals, many of which can be produced here at home. While materials recycling should be a key part of meeting this demand, it’s hardly a cure-all. It’s past time for the U.S. to place strategic importance on mining and the greater materials supply chain. China is already years ahead in this industrial arms race, prioritizing mining as a cog of its industrial policy. For example, China is the top resource holder for 10 of the minerals and materials vital to wind, solar and battery technologies. A new report from the Commerce Department stresses the urgency of action. It warns that the U.S. has become “heavily dependent” on foreign sources for 31 of the 35 minerals recently designated as “critical” by the Department of the Interior. While the U.S. has fallen far behind, there are signs of hope. Bipartisan legislation introduced by Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.V., The Minerals Security Act, is an important step forward in responding to China’s dominance and beginning to right our supply chain. The legislation would streamline a variety of mine permitting and regulatory processes currently sapping U.S. mining competitiveness. Their leadership in beginning to address this issue deserves strong, bipartisan backing. The technologies of tomorrow — whether they’re energy technologies or the defense applications that keep us safe — are more materials-intensive than what they’re replacing. It’s essential we build a supply chain to support them. Failing to do so won’t just be an economic missed opportunity. It would be a geopolitical blunder that undermines our global leadership. The time for decisive action to encourage domestic mining, and rebuild our industrial base, has arrived. Retired U.S. Army Brig. Gen. John Adams served more than 30 years in command and staff assignments as an Army aviator, military intelligence officer, and foreign area officer in Europe, Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. He is president of Guardian Six Consulting.

Alaska senators gain support on transboundary mining issues

Senators from the Western U.S. are joining the Alaska congressional delegation to press the issue of Canadian mining practices in transboundary watersheds . The bipartisan group of six senators — Mike Crapo, R-Idaho; Jim Risch, R-Idaho; Jon Tester, D-Mont.; Steve Daines, R-Mont.; Maria Cantwell, D-Wash.; and Patty Murray, D-Wash. — sent a letter along with Alaska Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan June 13 to British Columbia Premier John Horgan highlighting the steps states and the federal government have taken to monitor transboundary rivers and what they want provincial officials to do in return. They were compelled to send the correspondence because there weren’t enough delegates to the International Joint Commission from either country to hold its biannual meeting in April, according to the letter. IJC spokeswoman Sally Cole-Misch said it took roughly a year for President Donald Trump’s three appointees to the commission to be confirmed by the Senate and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appointed three new Canadian commissioners as soon as the terms of those appointed by his predecessor were completed. The panel of six new IJC commissioners was sworn in May 17. The Boundary Waters Treaty with Canada established the IJC in 1909 specifically to settle disputes over watersheds that cross or comprise the international border. For years, members of the Alaska congressional delegation have been asking provincial leaders, and domestically, State Department officials, to address potential water quality problems from large hard rock mines at the upper reaches of transboundary watersheds in British Columbia; this is the first time senators from other border states have formally joined them. In the Lower 48, transboundary concerns have centered on Canadian coal mines. While numerous Alaska environmental, commercial fishing and Alaska Native groups have called for IJC involvement to provide further protection for Alaska salmon fisheries downstream from mining activity, the commission can only be spurred by a formal call from either the State Department or Canada’s Global Affairs Department. Attempts by the Alaska delegation to get former Secretary of State John Kerry to review Alaska’s concerns regarding Canadian mining activity in transboundary watersheds largely proved unfruitful. Concerns over the British Columbia mine permitting process were heightened after the 2014 Mount Polley mine tailings dam failure. The Mount Polley copper and gold mine is in the upper reaches of the large Fraser River watershed, a major salmon producer for Canada and the U.S. A British Columbia auditor general report concluded the Mount Polley dam breach was the result of inadequate engineering and poor oversight from regulators. The senators’ letter notes that the departments of State, Interior and the Environmental Protection Agency set up a joint working group to determine what could be done to safeguard U.S. economic interests related to the commercial fisheries and tourism enterprises that could be compromised by the impacts from upstream mines. Congress last year approved $1.8 million for Interior Department agencies to spend on improved downstream water quality monitoring systems in transboundary rivers. “While we appreciate Canada’s engagement to date, we remain concerned about the lack of oversight of Canadian mining projects near multiple transboundary rivers that originate in B.C. and flow into our four U.S. states,” the senators wrote to Premier Horgan. “To address these concerns, we have taken steps in partnership with our federal and state governments to improve water quality monitoring and push for constructive engagement with Canada. “In sharing an update on our efforts, we hope to encourage you, in your role as Premier, to allocate similar attention, engagement, and resources to collaborative management of our shared transboundary watersheds.” Alaska Tribes and conservation groups insist a host of mines proposed in the Canadian portions of large salmon-bearing transboundary rivers that flow into Southeast Alaska, such as the Stikine and Unuk, could degrade water quality and endanger those fisheries. They also contend Canadian bonding requirements for mining companies are inadequate. “This is a multi-state, international problem for which we need a multi-state, international solution,” United Fishermen of Alaska Executive Director Frances Leach wrote in a formal statement following the release of the senators’ letter. “Right now B.C.’s massive open-pit mines and waste dumps put some of Alaska and B.C.’s most important salmon rivers, and the fishing jobs that rely on them, at risk. Alaska fishermen and the thousands of people across the world who enjoy wild salmon expect and deserve better from B.C regulators.” Former British Columbia Minister of Energy and Mines Bill Bennett said in a prior interview with the Journal that the provincial and federal Canadian governments have environmental protection requirements for mines on par with the U.S. and Alaskans’ concerns come from a lack of adequate communication between the governments on the issue. Bennett is now a director for the British Columbia-based mining exploration firm Eagle Plains Resources Ltd. The Alaska delegation specifically has asked provincial environmental regulators to provide State of Alaska officials, tribes and Alaska Native corporations a formal consultation process during mine permit reviews. In November 2015 former Gov. Bill Walker and then British Columbia Premier Christy Clark signed a memorandum of understanding to create a transboundary Bilateral Working Group to facilitate the exchange of best practices, marine safety, workforce development, transportation links and joint visitor industry promotion. Bennett said at the time that the MOU represented a significant change in how the state and province interact. Last November British Columbia mine regulators began the process of seeking firms to clean up acid rock leakage from the Tulsequah Chief mine in the Taku River drainage east of Juneau. State officials contend the multi-metal mine that operated for just six years has been leaking acid wastewater into the Tulsequah River, which feeds the Taku, since it was closed in 1957. ^ Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

Report: US needs more domestic sources for critical minerals

Filling the country’s domestic deficit of numerous minerals and metals has been a priority of the Trump administration, which on June 4 released a plan for addressing what it considers to be a national security issue. The Commerce Department report, entitled, “A Federal Strategy to Ensure Secure and Reliable Supplies of Critical Minerals” lays out the ways in which the administration believes the U.S. can improve domestic control over 31 of the 35 often hard to pronounce minerals designated as “critical” in a May 2018 Interior Department report. Interior’s critical minerals list notes that the country imports more than 50 percent of its supply of 31 minerals and relies completely on outside sources for 14 of those, including graphite and many minerals that are essential for modern energy storage and advanced technologies. For several years, the U.S. imported all of its rare earth elements — used in very small quantities in many electronic devices from smartphones to components for fighter jets — until the Mountain Pass rare earths mine in southern California reopened last year. The Interior Department also highlights the fact that China is the country’s primary source for many of the minerals it imports, which provides leverage to a government the administration is now at odds with over trade issues. The reports were compiled following a December 2017 Executive Order signed by President Donald Trump directing the Agriculture, Commerce, Defense, Energy and Interior departments to prioritize addressing the nation’s critical mineral situation. Among the priorities in the critical minerals strategy is a push for federal agencies to thoroughly assess the country’s resources for the various imported minerals and for specifically the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management to reform their land-use planning methods to protect access to those resources. BLM oversees 245 million acres of federal land — about 10 percent of the country — and subsurface mineral rights to roughly 700 million acres. According to the bureau, BLM-controlled lands hold approximately 30 percent of the nation’s minerals. The Forest Service manages nearly 193 million acres. The report states that many mineral deposits cannot be developed because of existing land withdrawals, reservations or other land-use restrictions. It notes that those designations can serve useful purposes for everything from wildlife protection to military use, but recommends the Forest Service and BLM coordinate with the U.S. Geological Survey along with state and Tribal governments and mining industry representatives to evaluate areas with use restrictions for mineral resources. “Any (mineral resource) analysis performed should quantify and qualify the economic and national security implications of: reducing the size of an existing withdrawal, reducing the area affected by a land-use designation, changing planning allocations, or revoking an existing withdrawal,” the report states. It further emphasizes a desire to prioritize reviews of withdrawn areas based on the potential for discoveries of critical minerals. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who chairs the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said she welcomed the strategy report in a statement from her office. “(The report) provides clear direction on how to reduce our reliance on foreign minerals and thereby strengthen our economy and national security. I urge the administration to swiftly implement its recommendations, especially those that encourage domestic mineral production and continued research into processing technologies, and will continue my work to compliment these efforts with new legislative authorities,” she said. In May, Murkowski co-sponsored the American Mineral Security Act along with Sen. Dan Sullivan, which, among other things, would require the Interior Department to update a list of critical minerals every three years. The Mineral Security Act would also mandate nationwide assessments for the availability of each mineral on the critical list as well as direct Interior and Forest Service mineral project permitting reforms aimed at reducing the time to reach permit decisions and authorize research for critical mineral recycling or replacement materials. While many policymakers and national security experts regularly raise concerns about the United States’ reliance on China for many of the minerals the country imports — such as graphite, rare earths, bismuth, barite and others — the strategy recommends strengthening trade ties with current geopolitical partners and allied countries that could be preferable sources for some minerals. Bokan rare earths Alaska is rich in many minerals and a deposit near the southern tip of the state has the potential to be a significant domestic source of rare earth elements. The Bokan Mountain rare earth underground mine prospect near tidewater on southern Prince of Wales Island holds more than 4.7 million metric tons of indicated rare earth ore, according to a 2015 resource assessment by Nova Scotia-based Ucore Rare Metals Inc., the company working on the project. That translates to approximately 63.5 million pounds of collective rare earth metals. However, Ucore has shifted its attention away from advancing the mine since 2015 following a drastic fall in global rare earth prices. Instead, the company has focused on developing a small mineral processing facility in nearby Ketchikan by late 2020. Ucore leaders have discussed the prospect of financing at least part of the estimated $25 million strategic minerals complex through the state-owned Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority. The Alaska Legislature in 2014 authorized AIDEA to issue up to $145 million in bonds to help finance the Bokan mine project, which the company estimated in 2013 would cost $221 million to develop. Ucore CEO Jim McKenzie said recent U.S.-China trade tensions have highlighted the importance of addressing domestic mineral supply issues and have recently boosted prices particularly for heavy rare earth elements. There are 17 minerals defined as rare earth elements, but “heavy” rare earths — such as europium, terbium, and ytterbium with a greater atomic weight — are the most sought after and are used in products that rely on high-temperature magnets. More common lighter rare earths are used in a plethora of applications including LED displays. Heavy rare earths account for roughly 40 percent of the mineralization at Bokan, according to Ucore. “The Bokan deposit is unique in the U.S., with its unusual skew towards these valuable (heavy rare earth elements). Bokan is also unique in its ease of access, its limited projected development cost, and its significant financial backing by the State of Alaska,” McKenzie said in a formal statement. “We applaud the Trump administration for identifying these critical resources and streamlining their route to production.” Ucore officials declined to comment on the progress of the Ketchikan processing facility because of Utah and Nova Scotia court battles the company is in with Utah-based IBC Advanced Technologies, a metal processing technology company Ucore had entered into a joint-venture agreement with. The companies are now in litigation over that agreement. Ucore Vice President Randy MacGillivray did write via email that the company completed drilling and resource assessment work in 2014 and is satisfied with the results of the 2013 preliminary economic assessment of the Bokan project. Once Ucore officials decide to move ahead with the mine, they expect it will require two-plus years of permitting before construction can begin, according to MacGillivray. ^ Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

Southeast metal prospect has major potential

A Southeast Alaska multi-metal prospect has the potential to produce a big payback if developed into a mine largely due to its proximity to established infrastructure, according to an early evaluation of the project. Constantine Metal Resources’ underground Palmer copper-zinc-precious metals prospect north of Haines could generate $266 million in after-tax cash flow despite a projected mine life of just 11 years based on the results of a preliminary economic assessment, or PEA, released by the company June 3. The Palmer project is a joint venture between Vancouver-based Constantine as the majority and Dowa Holdings, a Japanese metal manufacturer. The deposit is adjacent to the Alaska-Canada border and near the Haines Highway about 40 miles northwest of Haines along the Klehani River, which flows into the Chilkat River. It is on a mix of federal mining claims surrounded by land owned by the Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority, which is open for development. If developed as currently envisioned, the Palmer project would be an underground mine that would process up to 3,500 metric tonnes of ore per day, or approximately 12.5 million metric tonnes over the life of the mine. From that, the mine would produce more than 1 billion pounds of zinc, 196 million pounds of copper, 18 million ounces of silver, 91,000 ounces of gold and nearly 2.9 million tonnes of barite, a common industrial mineral, according to Constantine. The mine would cost $278 million to develop and require another $140 million for sustaining capital and reclamation costs for an estimated all-in cost of $418 million. Those costs translate to an operating-capital cost of approximately $65 per tonne with operating income of $92 per tonne of ore, according to the PEA figures. Constantine CEO Garfield MacVeigh said in a corporate release that the PEA is a major milestone for the Palmer project and demonstrates “a high-quality project with strong economics and a progressive, environmentally conscious mine design.” Advanced zinc-copper projects such as Palmer with favorable economics are scarce in North America, MacVeigh said. “What sets the Palmer project apart from its peers is excellent access by paved all-season highway and secondary roads, close proximity to an existing Pacific port ore terminal, reasonable and manageable capital costs, significant district-scale upside for additional mineral resources, and a joint venture that includes a global leader in the zinc smelting business,” he said further. Constantine expects the project would support about 260 full-time jobs during operation. Constantine plans to truck copper and zinc concentrates to the Haines port, where the material would be barged about 15 miles to the deepwater ore terminal in nearby Skagway, which is owned by the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority. The barite concentrate would be barged separately from Haines to a rail terminal in Prince Rupert, British Columbia, just south of Ketchikan. Barite is an important industrial mineral in drilling mud for oil and gas wells and has other applications in the medical field. Barite from Palmer would be ready for use and not require additional refinement, according to Constantine. The Palmer deposit currently consists of indicated resources of 539 million pounds of zinc at an average grade of 5.3 percent; 154 million pounds of copper at a 1.5 percent average grade; and 1.1 million tonnes of barite along with gold and silver resources. Inferred resources include more than 1 billion pounds of zinc; 124 million pounds of copper; more than 2.6 million tonnes of barite. According to the PEA, zinc would account for 48 percent of the total value of all the concentrates produced from the Palmer project. Constantine touts Palmer as an environmentally sound project largely due to a design that would eventually store potentially acid-generating rock underground — backfilling mined ore — preventing exposure to rainwater and potential acid leaching. Constantine estimates that 78 percent of the mine tailings would be used as backfill. A portion of the potentially acid-generating waste rock would need to be stored above ground early in the mine’s life until space was available to begin the backfilling underground. “Desulfurized tailings,” accounting for about 15 percent of the total processed material, would permanently be stored above ground, according to the company. However, the Palmer project has detractors. The Chilkat Indian Village of Klukwan and several local conservation groups sued the Bureau of Land Management in December 2017 for not adequately considering the potential impacts of future mine development when approving exploration permits for the project. Alaska U.S. District Court Judge Timothy Burgess rejected the claims in a March 15 ruling that has since been appealed to the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. Southeast Alaska Conservation Council staff scientist Guy Archibald said in an interview that the group and others oppose the project because of its location — in the upper reaches of a salmon-bearing watershed — and the omnipresent potential for acid leaching from massive sulfide deposits such as Palmer. Archibald said Constantine’s overall plan to permanently store potentially acid-generating tailings underground is a better plan “on paper” than other traditional mine operations, but he also noted “that even the best laid plans quite often go awry.” Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

Resource potential expands at Alaska graphite prospect

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

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