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Pebble unveils long-awaited smaller mine plan

Pebble Partnership CEO Tom Collier speaks to reporters on Wednesday at the Pebble offices in Anchorage. (Loren Holmes / Alaska Dispatch News)

Granted another chance by the Trump administration, the backers of the Pebble copper and gold prospect on Wednesday unveiled a plan they say is smaller than anything they've considered and addresses environmental criticisms about the project.

The plan will be filed with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers by the end of the year, part of the process to receive development permits from agencies, said Tom Collier, chief executive of Pebble Partnership.

Pebble is also planning concepts to promote economic development in the Bristol Bay region, including profit-sharing with residents.

Collier shared details of the new plan, laid out in a 104-slide presentation, with a reporter Wednesday at the company's Anchorage office.

He will release the plan Thursday at 7 a.m. at a meeting of the Resource Development Council at the Dena'ina Civic and Center in Anchorage.

During the permit's 20-year life, Pebble would mine only a fraction of the huge deposit. The company does not plan to use cyanide to extract the gold.

"We're walking away from 15 percent of the gold," Collier said.

Pebble, owned by Northern Dynasty Minerals of Canada, has studied the controversial copper, gold and molybdenum prospect for years.

The prospect is located near salmon-producing Bristol Bay headwaters, and the company has faced fierce opposition from critics who fear it will devastate the region's valuable salmon fishery.

Pebble has blamed regulatory resistance from the Obama-era Environmental Protection Agency for halting its plans and sparking a court fight. But Pebble says it can now seek permits after a legal settlement in May between Trump's EPA and Pebble.

Opponents indicated on Wednesday they will still try to stop the mine prospect, even with a smaller proposal. They fear Pebble wants to get a foot in the door but ultimately plans to develop the entire prospect.

"They've opened the door to the vault. Why wouldn't they walk into it?" said Russell Nelson, land committee chairman for Bristol Bay Native Corp., which opposes the project.

Northern Dynasty Minerals has issued statements contradicting the small-mine concept, said Alannah Hurley, executive director of United Tribes of Bristol Bay.

She said Northern Dynasty CEO Ron Thiessen recently told Petroleum News that potential investors agree that a smaller mine is the best way to "start" the project. The company sold the prospect as a giant opportunity that could be mined for generations, and has no intention of backing off that plan, she said.

"Pebble can try to be the best used-car salesman in Alaska and try to repackage and disguise this toxic project, but that has not worked and it's not going to  work," Hurley said.

Collier said there are no current plans for a "phase 2." But such plans could develop in the future, he said.

However, a second phase would also have to go through its own permitting process, undergoing scrutiny from agencies to ensure it meets environmental standards before construction begins, Collier said.

Collier said he fundamentally rejects the characterization that a company can just "sneak under the tent" and expand development, calling that notion "crap."

"You have to go through the whole process," said Collier, a former chief of staff to Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt under President Bill Clinton.

Under the plan, Pebble would not build mine facilities in the Upper Talarik Creek watershed feeding into Lake Iliamna. The tailing storage facility would be built to withstand the strongest earthquake, and would be limited to the North Fork Koktuli River watershed.

"Our tailings facility now will only be in one drainage, and that's pretty significant, because usually the risk associated with a major mining project in most people's minds is that the tailings facility fails," Collier said.

An ice-breaking ferry would cross Lake Iliamna year-round, dramatically reducing road construction.

In 2014, the EPA had represented Pebble's smallest plan as a 13.5-square mile project, counting the tailings storage facility, waste rock and mine pit, Collier said. That shrinks to 5.4 square miles under the new plan.

The plan proposes a dividend to Bristol Bay residents of about $500 annually, as well as profit-sharing with some village corporations. Pebble has hired ASRC Energy Services to ensure local Native corporations are prepared to take on construction contracts.

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