Pebble Partnership Unveils New Bristol Bay Mine Plan

Bristol Bay watershed (EPA)

By The Maritime Executive 10-07-2017 04:53:38

The backers of the proposed copper and gold mine in the headwaters of Alaska's Bristol Bay have released a new development plan intended to address concerns about the facility’s environmental impact.

The initial plan for Pebble Limited Partnership’s "Pebble Mine" facility was rejected by the EPA on the grounds that its operations posed an unacceptable risk to Bristol Bay's sockeye salmon fishery, the largest in the world. On a good year, fishermen bring in up to 35 million sockeye during the Bristol Bay opening – about 40 percent of the world total. EPA did not wait for the Pebble Mine project to complete its environmental impact statement: the agency conducted its own assessment of the mine's impact on salmon and proposed to halt it early in the review process. Risks EPA identified included salmon habitat loss; habitat degradation from sediment and streamflow alterations; toxic levels of dissolved copper in stream water; and (in the worst case) mine waste containment failure, as at the Mount Polley mine in 2014.

Tom Collier, the CEO of Pebble Limited Partnership, said Thursday that his firm had reached an agreement with the Trump administration's EPA to halt litigation over the EPA’s ban if the permitting process moves forward. "When the new team came in . . . we pretty quickly resolved that we would drop all of our litigation and they would stop this foolishness of coming after us with a preliminary veto," he said. 

On July 11, the EPA announced an intention to withdraw the proposed ban and restart the review process. On Thursday, EPA announced new public hearings on its decision to withdraw the ban, and Collier announced Pebble Limited's revised mine plan the same morning. 

The new site plan calls for a 13-square mile footprint, twice the size of Alaska’s Fort Knox Mine; a redesigned tailings waste pit, with a strengthened retention dam; the relocation of all facilities into two drainages rather than three; deploying a ferry across a large lake to reduce the number of road miles built over wetlands; and leaving out the proposed cyanide leaching plant. "Secondary gold recovery at a gold mine [cyanide extraction] is a pretty big deal – for us it's about 15 percent of the gold. We're not going to bring cyanide into the region . . . we're going to leave that 15 percent of gold in the rock at the mine site," Collier said.  

If Pebble clears its EPA permitting process and gets federal permission to proceed, it has an additional obstacle: a successful 2014 ballot measure intended to prohibit it. Alaska's voters approved the "Bristol Bay Forever" initiative by a margin of 66 to 34, according to Collier. "It's our intention to file litigation in the next several months to have that declared unconstitutional," he said Thursday.