Mining

Both sides of Pebble find fault with EPA study

Scientists and attorneys on both sides of the Pebble mine controversy are voicing starkly different opinions of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Bristol Bay watershed study. A panel of 12 independent scientists concluded three days of meetings on the study in Anchorage Aug. 7. A report to EPA by the group will be made late this fall, the scientists said. Bill Riley, a retired EPA mining specialist asked by Bristol Bay Native Corp. to review the agency’s assessment, said that a key challenge facing Pebble is a very large flow of wastewater, many times the volume of other Alaska mines. “There will be no opportunity for dilution, unlike all other Alaska mines, prior to discharge,” to the environment, Riley told the independent review panel. The receiving waters, where the wastewater would be discharged, have wild salmon, he said. Riley also said the annual precipitation, from rain and snow, is what will drive the water management problem at Pebble, and that there is evidence from others that the EPA review document may have underestimated precipitation by 50 percent. “The design of wastewater collection, conveyance and treatment facilities must be designed to handle extreme flows,” but the assessment document only considers average flows, Riley said. A key problem is whether, given the lack of dilution, the state standard for water quality can be achieved for water discharges at the “end of the pipe.” “Can such treatment be sustained and maintained in perpetuity?” Riley asked. Riley is very familiar with Alaska mines and their permitting requirements. At EPA he was involved in all major mines successfully permitted by the agency from 1984 to 2004, including the Red Dog, Fort Knox, Kensington, Greens Creek and Pogo mines. Another scientist weighing in was Susan Luetters, a senior environmental scientist and project manager for Bristol Engineering Services Corp., a subsidiary of Bristol Bay Native Corp. “In my professional opinion the (EPA) watershed assessment is a well thought-out and presented document with its conclusions carefully stated,” Luetters told the review panel. “It is also my opinion that EPA has underestimated the potential impacts from mining, including the direct and indirect impacts to wetlands and aquatic systems.” EPA estimates of its mine scenario impacts on wetlands were based on aerial photo interpretation of high altitude imaging in National Wetland Inventory maps and had very little, “ground-truthing,” Luetters said. Pebble Limited Partnership field studies indicated the reach and extent of wetlands in the mine area as shown in the National Wetland Inventory maps were too low. Luetters said she believes the Pebble Partnership’s own studies put the wetlands figures too low. The groundwater flow through a wetland system is “critical to maintaining water temperature, flow and chemistry which are key to supporting the benthic organisms that are major food sources for rearing salmon,” Luetters told the review panel. On the other side of this were comments critical of the EPA’s assessment. These included remarks by Michael Kavanaugh, with Geosyntec Consultants, a consulting firm. Kavanaugh was retained by Northern Dynasty Minerals to review technical aspects of the EPA assessment. Northern Dynasty is one of the mine owners, and a partner in Pebble Limited Partnership with Anglo American. Kavanaugh told the review panel that the assessment “fails to meet widely accepted quality standards that must be satisfied to produce a credible scientific and technical assessment. The report both significantly exaggerates both the probabilities of failures of all engineered mining components and the environmental consequences of these failure scenarios.” Three specific shortcomings were pointed out by Kavanaugh: • Erroneous assumptions based on literature data not relevant to a modern mining scenario, such as culvert failure statistics developed from culverts that were never permitted in the first place; • Inaccurate calculations that significantly overestimate consequences of those hypothetical system failures, such as using inappropriate geometry in a dam breach analysis, that over-predicts velocity and distance of sediment transport. • General lack of any attention to mitigation measures for all engineered systems which would be designed with appropriate safety factors, be accepted by regulators, and be designed to minimize the consequences of unlikely failure events, such as placing pipeline shutoff valves immediately before stream crossings instead of 14 kilometers away, thereby limiting the amount of material that would escape if there were a failure. In his remarks to the review panel Tom Collier, an attorney retained by Northern Dynasty, said the EPA included scenarios of possible tailings dam failures based on 135 past incidents. “Yet 126 of them involve dam construction of a type not now contemplated by Pebble,” he said. Of the remaining nine incidents, state-of-the-art technological, engineering and construction improvements have made them “irrelevant,” as examples to use, Collier said. He also criticized EPA for not considering any data from Pebble Partnership’s $120 million program to gather environmental data.

Gold find adds 1.2M ounces at Pogo

FAIRBANKS – Drilling crews are busy on new exploration this summer at the Pogo gold mine near Delta, east of Fairbanks. It is the biggest exploration season since the mine opened, says Lorna Shaw, external affairs manager for Sumitomo Metal Mining, which owns and operates the mine. Efforts this summer are focused on defining the new “East Deep” discovery, a gold ore deposit discovered last year that is near the main Pogo ore body. The new discovery has added an estimated 1.2 million ounces of new gold resources to Pogo, a major increase from the current 2.6 million ounces of reserves. There could be more gold, too. ”East Deep has very high potential and we’ve really only touched part of it. We’re looking for the limits this summer,” Shaw said. The discovery is not likely to result in increased production but would instead extend the operating life of the time. This summer, three drill rigs are at work drilling from the surface and three rigs are drilling from underground locations in the mine, testing the East Deep deposit. Sumitomo plans to do 94,000 feet of exploration drilling this year, with 86,000 feet drilled from the surface and 8,000 feet drilled underground. Last year the company did 79,672 feet of exploration drilling. In other developments, Pogo reached a milestone recently in exceeding the two-million-ounce production threshold. The mine produced 325,708 troy ounces of gold in 2011, a bit below the annual production average of 350,000 ounces to 380,000 ounces in recent years. Typically, 2,545 tons of ore per day are mined and processed at Pogo. Based on the current reserves the mine is expected to operate through 2019, but with new discoveries like East Deep the mine life could be extended. Pogo employs 335 workers directly and there are about 150 contractor employees at present, Shaw said. Bed space at the camp is tight this summer. “We have 376 beds on site and we are near capacity this summer,” Shaw said. “Making sure there is room for everyone, with increased construction and exploration, can be a bit of a jig-saw puzzle.” Sumitomo is now building added camp capacity, with 79 new beds, that will be available by the end of the summer, Shaw said. In operations, Pogo experienced high turnover rates among its employees after the mine first started in 2007, but turnover is now reduced to levels that are normal for the industry, Shaw said. “Things have stabilized, but it’s still an issue,” the company is concerned about, she said. “Experienced underground miners tend to be transient,” Shaw said, because there is a high demand for them. The company likes to hire in Alaska, but the Alaskan recruits tend to come in with entry-level skills for undergoing mining. Underground crews must all include some experienced miners. “We can’t have an underground crew with all entry-level people,” she said. Sumitomo is considered several ideas in training including possible programs with the University of Alaska Fairbanks similar to those operated by in Juneau by University of Alaska Southeast for the Greens Creek and Kensington underground mines. Pogo is the only operating underground mine outside of Southeast Alaska except for the small Nixon Fork mine near McGrath. Other producing mines like the Fort Knox Mine near Fairbanks, the Usbelli coal mine at Healy and the Red Dog Mine north of Kotzenue, are surface mines. While the skill sets for miners in underground and surface mines are different – surface mines require experience and skill in operating heavy equipment – many jobs are similar in the mines, such as operators in the ore processing mills, mechanics, maintenance and other support people, Shaw said.

Mineral exploration spending tops $300 million in 2011

Mining is growing fast in its economic punch in the state, new studies by the industry show. In 2011 the industry employed 4,500 in producing mines exploration, up from 3,500 in 2010 in terms of equivalent full-time jobs, according to studies by McDowell Group, the Juneau-based consulting firm. The average annual pay for a worker in mining reached $100,000 in 2011, up from an average of $95,000 the previous year. State revenues from mining totaled $148 million in 2011, 170 percent up from $58.9 million in 2010, which was also 40 percent up from 2009. Tax payments to local governments, through property taxes or payments-in-lieu of tax, increased from $13 million in 2010 to $17 million in 2011. The research was commissioned by the Alaska Miners Association and the Council of Alaska Producers, two industry associations. Other highlights from the McDowell Group reports: • Exploration spending reached $300 million in 2011, up 13 percent from 2010. • Sixty exploration projects spent more than $100,000 on their prospects in 2011, up from 50 in 2010. Of those explorers, 30 projects spent more than $1 million on their prospects in 2011, up from 24 in 2011. • Including 2011, minerals companies have spent a cumulative $2.8 billion on exploration since 1981. Seven mines were producing in 2011, one more than in 2010. The new producing mine is Nixon Fork, a small underground mine near McGrath, west of Anchorage. Other producing mines include the Usibelli coal mine at Healy, south of Fairbanks; the Fort Knox gold mine northeast of Fairbanks, a surface mine; the Red Dog Mine in the DeLong Mountains north of Kotzebue, a large surface mine; the Pogo Mine, a medium-sized undergroud mine near Delta, east of Fairbanks; and the Kensington and Greens Creek mines near Juneau. Kensington is an underground gold mine at Berner’s Bay, north of the capital city, while Greens Creek in an underground multi-metal mine, mainly zinc and silver, on Admiralty Island west of Juneau. Work was also under way in 2011, as well as in 2010, on a number of medium-to-large size mines still in the advanced exploration phase. These include the large Pebble gold/copper mine near Iliamna southwest of Anchorage; the large Donlin Creek gold mine on the middle Kuskokwim River west of Anchorage; the large-to-medium size Livenood gold project north of Fairbanks; the Niblack multi-metals prospect and the Bokan Mountain rare earths project near Ketchikan in Southeast Alaska; and two coal projects, the large Chuitna coal project at Beluga, on the west side of Cook Inlet, and Wishbone Hill, a medium-size coal project north of Palmer, in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough. In addition to the large producing mines there were about 200 medium and small-sized placer gold mines operating in both 2011 and 2010, the McDowell Group report said.

Miners busy with expansions, new projects

From far Southeast Alaska to the far Northwest, minerals companies are busy with projects. Alaska has seven producing mines now, one more than last year. The new producing mine is Nixon Fork on the upper Kuskokwim River, a remote location where fuel and supplies must be flown in. Several new mines may move into production the coming years, all in different parts of the state. Here’s a review of the producing mines and prospects around Alaska: Southeast The new Kensington underground gold mine north of Juneau has completed its first year of production. Coeur d’Alene Mines, the owner, has temporarily cut back production this year so that additional capital improvements can be made, essentially to de-bottleneck of the production process and increase efficiency. When those are completed, gold production will resume according to the company’s plan. At the Greens Creek Mine, on Admiralty Island west of Juneau, owner Hecla Mining is engaged in securing permits for an expansion of the tailings storage facility at the mine. If the plan is approved, Greens Creek will have the capacity to handle tailings for another 30 to 50 years of production. Greens Creek is an underground mine that has been producing a mix of silver, zinc and gold for more than 20 years. Two potential new mines in Southeast are near Ketchikan. One is the Niblack project, a copper-gold-zinc-silver deposit that would be similar to the Greens Creek Mine if brought into production. Niblack Mining Corp. is the developer. The second is Bokan Mountain, a rare earths project that has attracted national attention because it has a type of heavy rare earth mineral that is relatively scarce. Rare earths are a type of mineral used widely in high technology applications including defense technology. The developer at Bokan Mountain is Ucorp, a company that specializes in rare earths projects. Southcentral Two possible coal projects are in the permitting stage. One is the Chuitna project in the Beluga coalfields where the owners, the Bass-Hunt group, are developing a supplemental environmental impact statement. This would be a surface mine that would tap large subbituminous coal resources in the Beluga coal fields. Coal would be mined and moved to coal ships loading at a planned new offshore loading terminal in Upper Cook Inlet with a gondola system. One of the central points of concern at Chuitna is the disruption of several miles of salmon-bearing streams as the coal deposit is mined. The company is working on a mitigation and restoration plan for the salmon streams, but it must have the approval of state agencies. Another potential coal project in Southcentral is Wishbone Hill north of Palmer that is proposed for development by Usibelli Mine Inc., operator and owner of a larger coalmine at Healy. Unlike the Healy subbituminous coal and similar coal at Chuitna, Wishbone Hill has high quality bituminous coal that has attracted the attention of a Japanese company as a customer. Like the present Healy mine and the planned project at Chuitna, Wishbone Hill would be a relatively smaller mine with its coal trucked to facilities where it could be shipped, either to a rail line for shipment to Seward or trucked to the Port Mackenzie dock on Upper Cook Inlet. Interior At Healy, on the Parks Highway about 90 miles south of Fairbanks, Usibelli Mines continues to operate the Usibelli mine that has produced coal for decades. There are substantial untapped coal resources near the mine sufficient to allow the mine to produce for decades more. Usibelli sells to coal-fired power plants in Interior Alaska and also exports coal through Seward to Pacific rim buyers. The company has recently been setting records for coal exports and increased production. Coal is shipped by rail from Healy to Seward, where it is stored and loaded on ships. There are two major producing gold mines in Interior Alaska, the Fort Knox Mine northwest of Fairbanks, a surface mine, and Pogo, an underground gold mine northeast of Delta and east of Fairbanks. Sumitomo Heavy Metals, the owner at Pogo, continues to make incremental capital investments to improve efficiencies at the mine, and has also initiated new exploration nearby in an effort to expand resources and extend Pogo’s operating life. The Fort Knox mine has been in production for some years and is now supplementing its producing and processing of conventional gold ore with a heap leach, a process use to extract gold from low-quality ore. Both Pogo and Fort Knox purchase power through the regional power grid from Golden Valley Electric Association, the Interior electric cooperative, and the large power purchases help stabilize the cost of electricity for residents and businesses in the Fairbanks area. International Tower Hills, developing its planned new Livengood gold project on the Elliot Highway north of Fairbanks, also plans to purchase power from Golden Valley via a new transmission line that would be built from Fairbanks. The Livengood project is now at an advanced stage of exploration. It would a surface mine with low-grade ore, similar to Fort Knox, except that it is likely to be larger. The company additionally plans to mine placer gold deposits near the planned surface mine. Northwest The Red Dog lead and zinc mine in the western Brooks Range north of Kotzebue is once again the world’s largest zinc producer. Red Dog held that title for many years after its startup in 1989, slipped to second place at one point, but has now reclaimed its title. Zinc and lead concentrates are made at the mine, which is a surface mine, and shipped by road about 60 miles to a port facility on the Chukchi Sea coast. The concentrates are stored through the winter and shipped during the summer, when the Chukchi Sea is ice-free for three months or so. NANA Regional Corp. owns the land at the mine, which is operated by Teck. NANA receives 25 percent of the net profits from the mine as a royalty, which will increase in increments over the years until the corporation is receiving 50 percent of the profits. The land was obtained under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971, so a major percentage of the resource revenues from the mine are shared with other Alaska Native corporations. More than half of the mine workforce are NANA shareholders, many who live in nearby villages. The corporation is also engaged in several joint-ventures to provide support services to the mine, such as in camp operation and maintenance and transportation of the ore by truck. Red Dog was also developed in a partnership with the state, where the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority, the state development corporation, financed and owns the road and port facility supporting the mine. Teck pays AIDEA a toll for use of the road and port, and over the years the transportation of ore has been a significant source of income for the state authority. Teck has continued to make improvements at the mine to increase efficiency and moved to a new mine site last year that is adjacent to the first pit that was mine. This will allow mining to continue for two more decades. For the longer term there are other known lead and zinc deposits nearby that can be developed including one a few miles east that another company, Zazu Minerals, is working to develop. The company is also talking with AIDEA on a plan to finance a road to connect with the mine at Red Dog. The region is considered to be a major zinc province and will likely see decades of activity. NANA is also engaged in a new mining venture in the northwest region, in a partnership with NovaCopper, an affiliate company with NovaGold. The companies are working in the Ambler Mining District east of the villages of Ambler and Kobuk, on the upper Kobuk River. The prospect is mainly copper, although there is also gold present. NovaGold, now NovaCopper, has been working for some time exploring the Arctic deposit, a high-grade copper deposit originally discovered by Kennecott Minerals. NANA meanwhile acquired Bornite, a nearby copper discovery also found originally by Kennecott. The two companies have now formed a joint-venture to explore and possibly develop the projects together. The state of Alaska is also working on a planned industrial-type road into the area from the Dalton Highway, which would enhance exploration. Southwest On the middle Kuskokwim River, a partnership of Barrick Gold and NovaGold Resources are in an advanced stage of planning for a large new surface gold mine at Donlin Creek near Crooked Creek village on the Kuskokwim. DonlinGold, the joint-venture company formed to develop and operate the mine, may be applying for development permits this year. The landowners are Calista Corp., the Native regional corporation for the Yukon-Kuskokwim delta, which owns the subsurface rights, and the TKC Corp., a company owned by several villages in the Kuskokwim region, owner of surface lands at the mine. The companies have been working on the project for years and just the exploration work at Donlin Creek has provided significant employment for people in the region, which is one of the most economically depressed parts of Alaska. If the mine is developed it would be a major source of employment in the area. Interestingly, it was geological work by geologists hired by Calista that resulted in the gold discovery. Calista then worked for several years to bring in mining companies to explore and develop the project. No review of mining in Alaska would be complete without mentioning Pebble, a very large copper/gold/molybdenum deposit near Iliamna southwest of Anchorage. The mineral ore body has been explored over several years with both a large, deep resource being located that could be mined with an underground mine, and an adjacent deposit at the surface that would be mined with a surface mine. The developers at Pebble, Anglo American and Northern Dynasty Minerals, have been working on development planning and environmental studies. The Pebble Partnership, the company formed to develop the project, may be applying for permits to build the mine this year after releasing its long-awaited environmental baseline document.

Pebble debate breaks out between BBNC shareholders

JUNEAU — Sharp opinion differences over the proposed Pebble mine within the Bristol Bay community spilled out in Juneau March 19. The occasion was an informal “lunch and learn” noon session for legislators and staff in the state capitol where Bristol Bay Native Corp., the regional Alaska Native corporation for the area, gave a presentation on its activities, finances and dividends paid to shareholders. Jason Metrokin, BBNC’s president and CEO, used the occasion to announce that revenues will cross the $2 billion threshold for its fiscal year ending March 31. That’s up from $1.7 billion last year. Another 2011 milestone is that the corporation will have paid out $100 million in dividends to its shareholders since BBNC was formed in 1972 along with other Alaska Native corporations. The corporations’ share of the original $962 million cash settlement paid by the government was $30 million. Metrokin also wanted to explain BBNC’s reasons for opposing the big Pebble mine project, and that didn’t sit well with a handful of the corporation’s shareholders who were in the audience along with legislators. Metrokin said it is the sheer scale of the Pebble project and a distrust of the state’s permitting process that led BBNC’s board to twice pass resolutions opposing the mine, once in 2009 and again in 2011. However, Lisa Reimers, of Iliamna, a village close to the Pebble prospect, said communities in her part of the Bristol Bay region who stand to benefit from the mine, have no representation on BBNC board and were not a part of that decision. “We have no voice,” she said. Another dissenting voice was Abe Williams, another BBNC shareholder, who said communities in the eastern part of the region support the project being allowed to proceed to the permitting process. He objected to actions that would “short-circuit” the process by preventing the mining companies working on Pebble from filing permits. Williams said it is when the permits are filed that local people will be able to understand how the companies plan to develop the mine, safeguard put in place, and the overall risks and benefits. Metrokin said the corporation understands some shareholders’ opposition to the position taken by the board, but that a survey of shareholders in 2011 showed 81 percent opposed to the mine, an increase compared to 69 percent opposed when a similar survey was taken in 2007. “We have not yet seen the project plan but have seen enough elements of the project that we know there will be risks,” he said. If the project does proceed to permitting, “we’ll be there at every step of the way, to protect the fish.” Of 31 villages within BBNC’s regional boundaries, 26 have expressed opposition to Pebble, Metrokin said. Reimers and Williams said that communities more open to the project are those nearest it and where economic conditions are bad, population is being lost and schools are closing because of the lack of students. Metrokin replied that BBNC supports resource development that is responsible, but Reimers shot back: “You support development as long as it’s not in your back yard?” Not so, Metrokin said. BBNC is working with mining companies on evaluation of prospects on lands in the region owned by the corporation, and the it even owns a small piece of the Greens Creek Mine in Southeast Alaska, a legacy of its prior ownership of Peter Pan Seafoods, which had owned the Greens Creek share. Greens Creek, an underground mine that operates within a protected area on Admiralty Island west of Juneau, is an example of responsible development, Metrokin said. Reimers said this was still a contradiction – supporting some mines but not wanting one particular project to proceed to permitting. Teal Smith, the corporation’s vice president for lands who was with Metrokin, said there is a significant difference between “working with a company to assess what could be possible and what the corporation might support,” or not support. Metrokin said there is a lot of mineral potential in the Bristol Bay region but also a lot of fish, which the corporation wants to protect. “We’ve got to find a balance,” he said. The salmon fishery contributes $500 million a year and 3,500 jobs to the Bristol Bay regional economy and supports regional subsistence, which is valued at an additional $180 million. “We don’t own this resource, but it benefits our region,” he said. Williams agreed that fisheries need protection – he’s a fishermen himself – but pointed out that only 15 percent of the salmon fishing permits in the Bristol Bay fishery are owned by Alaska residents. “We don’t really have much of a voice in this fishery,” he said. Metrokin agreed this is a problem and that ways have to be found to help local people buy back salmon fishing permits held by nonresidents. Williams went on: “I’ve fished for 26 years and I value that resource, but I also believe (over dependence on) fisheries can be our demise,” Williams said. Other options for sustaining the economy should not be blocked by a “pre-emptive” strike to prevent Pebble from applying for permits, he said. Metrokin said BBNC is working to strengthen its regional economy through a board policy to invest 10 percent of its corporate assets within the region and 20 percent of its assets in other parts of Alaska in ventures that support its activities. On Pebble, Metrokin said there is fundamentally a distrust of the state’s permitting process and whether it would really be rigorous. “We worry about this when we hear the governor talking about ‘streamlining’ the permitting process for resources projects,” he said. “Streamlining may not be in the best interest of local people. We want the process to be robust. Our concern is that rural people will not have much of a voice at the table.”  Actions by the state administration and the Legislature last year to allow the state coastal zone program to die has added to concerns felt by people in the region, Metrokin said. Coastal management was a way people in many coastal communities felt they had a role in decisions on permits and other actions on major resource projects that affect coastal areas. A proposition reinstating the coastal management program, brought by citizen initiative will appear on the November election ballot unless the Legislature passes a similar law by its April 15 adjournment, which is unlikely. If Pebble is developed it would almost certainly be an underground mine with possibly an adjacent surface mine. The concern people have in the Bristol Bay region is that any pollution from the mine, such as from tailings stored above ground, could affect surface waters that drain into salmon-bearing streams.

State sues Lake and Pen Borough over initiative aimed at Pebble

The State of Alaska has filed its challenge to the recently enacted ordinance in Lake and Peninsula Borough aimed at stopping the Pebble mine. Alleging the ordinance unconstitutionally usurps the state’s role in managing natural resources for the maximum benefit of all citizens, the state filed its lawsuit against Lake and Peninsula Borough in the Alaska Superior Court 3rd District Oct. 28. The straightforward complaint numbering barely five pages alleges that the ordinance is preempted by state law, and that while home rule boroughs such as Lake and Pen may pass some ordinances governing natural resource development those rules may not conflict with state law. As enacted, the “Save our Salmon” initiative passed by a 280-244 mail-in vote that was certified Oct. 17 would require a project to receive approval from the borough before it could apply for state and federal permits. The ordinance, which applies to developments greater than 640 acres, is meant to stop development of the Pebble mine. The Pebble prospect situated west of Iliamna, which includes an estimated $400 billion worth of copper, gold and molybdenum, is on state lands. In addition to arguing the measure is invalid for usurping the state role in permitting, the complaint alleges the ordinance should also be declared invalid because it, “purports to prohibit development of State land and State-owned minerals.” In a statement released by his office, Attorney General John Burns said, “This case is not about state support for or against a Pebble Mine project. It is about upholding the State’s constitutional authority and responsibility to evaluate whether, on balance, development of Alaska’s resources is beneficial to all Alaskans. This administration has consistently maintained that the State will not sacrifice one resource for another. “In the case of Pebble, we haven’t yet even considered the pros and cons of any development that may be proposed. But the Alaska Constitution requires the State – not the borough - to fairly and completely conduct this evaluation.”

Alaskans know very little about the real process of mining

Except for TV commercials, which are laden with mixed messages and misinformation, most Alaskans know little about the mining process and have seldom seen the inner workings of a mine. Until World War II, for example, mining was the state’s largest employer, and the industry operated under few environmental regulations. With the advent of the Clean Water Acts of 1977 and 1987 and new mining technology, most operations contain the water or leave it cleaner than before the mine opened. Mine owners also spend millions of dollars to prevent such contamination as acid rock drainage. They place millions more dollars as a bond in the event of an accident, and they set up accounts to pay for upkeep and maintenance long after the mines cease production. The folks in the middle Kuskokwim River drainage could use this kind of information, since the developers of the proposed Donlin Creek mine, Barrick Gold Corp. and Nova Gold Resources Inc., are nudging toward the years-long permit process. With that thought in mind, Bob Gorman of the University of Alaska Fairbanks Mining Extension invited a handful of elders and community leaders on an intensive workshop and tour of Fort Knox, an open-pit gold mine outside Fairbanks, and Pogo, a remote, underground gold mine near Delta Junction. Over two days, the participants rolled up their sleeves and absorbed a hands-on education. They watched conveyors and 240-ton trucks transport rock from the mines. They suffered the ear-deadening racket as giant mills ground the chunks to the size of a quarter. They observed the cyanide and carbon tanks slowly retrieve the gold and then reprocess the tailings and water. Unlike the nuggets of mythological mother lodes, most of this bounty sizes up to microscopic flecks - 100 microns or 0.1 millimeters, thinner than notebook paper - and hides in fractures and shear zones in the granite. Fort Knox, for instance, processes about 900 ounces a day. As part of the bargain for this training, these Lower Kuskokwim residents shared this knowledge with their communities so they could effectively participate in the Donlin mine permitting process and help determine their social and economic destiny, Gorman said. “We’re not trying to convince anyone about the right thing to do. Communities need facts to determine what they want to do. They need the right information without a lot of passion, a lot of emotion.” Learning about the mineral extraction process is all fine and dandy, but the most important issue for any mine, according to workshop and tour leader Bob Loeffler, is to protect the water. With this imperative in mind, mining companies collect data for years, and every drop of water involved in the process requires a permit and must pass state and federal regulations. That process can include up to 60 permits, ranging from food service to a toilet flush, and an environmental impact statement. In fact, the public tells the government what to study to understand a mine’s environmental effects, said Loeffler, the former director of the Alaska Department of Natural Resources’ Division of Mining, Land and Water. Basically, the developers identify the risk of something happening, the consequences if something happens and a back-up plan. In the case of Fort Knox, a sump or water fence floats downhill into a tailings lake and not a drop escapes the mine. And 12 interceptor wells to pump any seepage back into the tailings lake, Loeffler said. Similarly, Pogo engineers diverted water around or under the site so drainage and storm runoff from mill, camp, shop, site roads and tailings is collected, treated and tested under 30 different parameters to meet the state’s water quality standards prior to discharge into large mixing ponds. Other safety measures include groundwater monitoring wells, annual fish studies on the river for at least 10 years and a seven-member stakeholder group. “Fish act as a great monitoring tool. And in many cases the fish standards are higher than human standards,” Loeffler said. Given the rules and regulations and the back-up plans and all the other hands-on details, Greg Roczicka of Bethel was still concerned - rightfully so - about the chemicals in the extraction process. But more importantly, he said, people need to understand the process so they can decide how mines will affect their future. “This trip actually broadened my perspective and raised my level of comfort that it (mining) can be done in a much safer manner . . . but mining companies are in it for the profit, and it’s part of our responsibility to make sure they conform to the regulations. And that’s a pretty tall order.” J. Mark Dudick is the media services editorial assistant for the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Mining Extension Service.

Barges on the move for Tulsequah Chief Mine

JUNEAU — Three ocean and river barges were headed toward Southeast Alaska last week as part of a plan to haul construction supplies up the Taku River to the Tulsequah Chief Mine. The conventional barges aren’t part of mining company Redcorp’s contentious proposal to use amphibious hoverbarges on the Taku to service the mine, roughly 40 miles northeast of Juneau in Canada. The barges were expected to arrive as soon as June 27 and will be temporarily stationed in deep water at the mouth of the Taku to ship supplies for temporary camps for construction crews, to install a sewage system, and to mark boundaries and construction areas for a temporary access road on the company’s mining claim. A smaller barge will be maneuvered via tugboat up the river to the mine site on the Tulsequah River, said Salina Landstad, a spokeswoman for the Vancouver-based mining company, Redcorp. The first trip was slated for 1 a.m. June 30 and the operation is expected to take roughly 10 days, depending on weather and river conditions, Landstad said. “I don’t know the exact size” of the vessels, Landstad said. Redcorp has hired Wainwright Marine Services of Prince Rupert, British Columbia, to handle the job. Landstad said the conventional barge plan did not require permits from Alaska or U.S. agencies, and that the company has alerted the agencies and cabin owners who might be affected. Jackie Timothy, a biologist who has worked on the hoverbarge aspect of the plan for the Department of Natural Resources, said she doesn’t believe her department requires permits for the conventional barges because they would be operating in “navigable” waters. The tugs and barges would not be moving over shallow waters, as would the “Amphitrac” vessel proposed for the hoverbarge operation. Redcorp met in recent weeks with cabin owners to notify them of the plan. Errol Champion, who owns a cabin up the Taku, said he still has unanswered questions about the operation. He said, however, “We are not totally in the dark.” He doesn’t believe Redcorp intends to damage to the river, but he worried about the maneuverability of the barges. “The river has been running very, very high,” he said, and high wakes could cause additional erosion. “It is not going to be easy. It is not easy for any of us to run the river,” said Champion, who frequently runs the tidal waterway. Landstad said that Wainwright has spill prevention plans in place and carries insurance in case of damage to property. Redcorp Ventures is a Vancouver-based mineral exploration and development company with projects in British Columbia and Portugal. 

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