Opponents of the big Pebble prospect allege the company pursuing it has left a mess — oil spills, abandoned equipment and improperly capped drilling holes that may be leaching acid — and they want the state Department of Natural Resources to order the company to clean up anything that threatens Bristol Bay or its salmon.
But Mike Heatwole, vice president of public affairs for the Pebble Limited Partnership, said the effort is a political move designed to generate headlines.
The 15 anti-Pebble groups, including the Bristol Bay Native Corp., fishing lodges and several tribes, argue in a petition to the Department of Natural Resources that Pebble appears to be on shaky financial footing, leaving them fearful the company may not have the money needed for a cleanup and proper abandonment of its activities on state land.
They say the state should investigate to ensure Pebble, which completed exploration activities two years ago, has met current reclamation requirements. If not, it wants DNR to require Pebble to prepare a reclamation plan with deadlines.
"They basically left us a mess in Bristol Bay and we want to make sure the state does what's necessary to protect our water, our salmon and our people," said Alannah Hurley, executive director of United Tribes of Bristol Bay, representing 14 tribes from the region.
"If Pebble Limited Partnership is forced to abandon this project because of their own financial issues, who will be left with the cost of cleanup? It will be the state of Alaska and taxpayers," she said.
The letter is the latest development in an ongoing battle that has lately been playing out in court filings, with Pebble arguing in federal court that the Environmental Protection Agency violated federal law by collaborating with anti-mine opponents, many from Bristol Bay, in an effort to stop the mine.
That fight moves to a Congressional hearing in the Republican-dominated House Science Committee on Thursday titled: "Examining EPA's Predetermined Efforts to Block the Pebble Mine."
Heatwole said no environmental harm has been done at the Pebble site. He said the company is in compliance with DNR requirements.
"These are serious, serious allegations," Heatwole said. "They are sensational and they are frankly designed to cast a bad light on our operation even though we are doing good work and continue to do so."
The 49-page petition, including several pages of exhibits to support the groups' arguments, was emailed to DNR Commissioner Mark Myers on Tuesday afternoon.
Myers and Deputy Commissioner Ed Fogels could not immediately comment on the petition because they had not seen it, said Mary Kay Ryckman executive secretary for the commissioner's office. Myers was busy in Juneau attending the special legislative session on gas line issues and Fogels was at a mining conference in Anchorage.
Normally, says the petition, a mine in Alaska would progress from the exploration to the development stage, triggering requirements for the creation of a reclamation plan and bonding to ensure cleanup.
But with major mining partners having abandoned Pebble and the company's financial resources increasingly limited, there are "legitimate questions" about the company's ability to enter the development phase, said the petition.
The petitioners argue that Pebble, owned by Northern Dynasty Minerals of Canada, may have violated the reclamation requirements tied to a DNR land-use permit.
Since 1987, more than 1,350 bore holes have been drilled by the company, as well as its subsidiaries and predecessors, some more than 1 mile deep. Pebble critics say many may not have been properly plugged, leading to fears that naturally occurring acid could be leaching into water, the petition says.
They said eight of the 24 holes inspected by DNR this summer had problems associated with such things as water seepage or failed plugs. Extrapolated out, that means perhaps as many as 400 holes require remedial action, the petition argues.
Heatwole said the eight holes that were producing water were not a random sample from which a larger number of troubled wells could be extrapolated. The company had already identified the eight holes. Water samples showed they were not causing environmental harm. Pebble planned to fix them and sought input from the state on the best approach.?
"Trying to extrapolate that out is not going to give you an accurate picture," he said.
The petition, which urges the state to pursue "financial security" from Pebble to support reclamation, includes other key concerns:
"The people of Bristol Bay are entitled to know the extent of the problems and thus a thorough investigation of the exploration activities and risks is warranted," the petition says.
Heatwole said cleanup efforts have been carried out properly, including for spills that occurred. He said the company has correctly stored equipment and secured facilities. It has not abandoned the equipment.
"Obviously, we hope to be back to continue our work," he said.