The Pebble Partnership plans to spend $80 million this year on advancing its proposed mine in Alaska's Bristol Bay.
The proposed Pebble Mine, 200 miles southwest of Anchorage, is estimated to hold 81 billion pounds of copper, 107 million ounces of gold and 5 billion pounds of molybdenum, and is said to be one of the largest such deposits in the world. However, the location of the proposed massive open-pit mine -- near the breeding grounds of the fertile Bristol Bay salmon fishery -- has led to intense scrutiny by opponents of the mine who say it would damage salmon streams that are important both commercially and culturally to the region.
The Pebble Partnership is 50-50 venture between global mining companies Anglo American and Northern Dynasty. Last year, the Pebble Partnership spent $107 million on preparing the permit application for the proposed mine. To date, the partnership has spent $680 million steering the project toward development.
The $80 million spent this year will come from Anglo American, due to the way the joint venture is structured, said Mike Heatwole, Pebble Partnership spokesperson. This year's funds will be spent with the goal of developing an overall project description and toward initiating the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) permit process.
NEPA permitting represents "the very beginning" of a years-long quest to collect more than 60 permits and approvals from various federal and state agencies, all required before the mine can proceed, Heatwole said.
Four categories of spending on an 'Alaska challenge'
The Pebble Partnership plans to spend the $80 million across four different categories of study.
First, a portion of the money will go toward engineering studies to assess how to get the minerals at the Pebble deposit out of the ground and on to market, including what is needed in terms of infrastructure and energy. Engineering challenges could almost be classified as an "Alaska challenge," Heatwole said. "You have a resource that's in a remote location, and there's no infrastructure."
That infrastructure would include a power plant, roads, and dam to support what would be the largest mine in Alaska. The engineering studies are "a very complex bit of work," and have been going on for years, he said.
Money also will be spent on environmental monitoring studies, including water quality and fisheries data. "A tremendous amount of environmental work has been done to date," Heatwole said, and this represents a continuation of those studies.
Third, a portion will be spent on site investigations, including the testing how stable soil is for planned infrastructure, and geo-hydrological water studies, based out of their headquarters in the village of Illiamna. Those studies will ramp up "as soon as the weather breaks," Heatwole said.
Basically, all these studies amount to "lots and lots of data," Heatwole said. Once all the data is collected, Pebble will return to the communities in Bristol Bay to explain its development plan to community members before submitting a NEPA permitting proposal.
Lastly, funds will be spent on public education and community investments, including tours of the proposed mine and student scholarship programs.
The biggest hurdle that the partnership faces is "putting together the package that gets everything in the right space," Heatwole said. That ranges from engineering details, to meeting state and federal environmental standards. "It's a very complicated process."
The Pebble Partnership is also awaiting a revised draft of the Environmental Protection Agency's watershed assessment of Bristol Bay, the first of which was completed in the summer of 2012 and painted a less-than-favorable picture of how the mine could impact nearby streams. "There were a lot of problems with the assessment," Heatwole said, and they are watching closely to see where the EPA goes from here. "It's still kind of unclear what's next," he said.
Contact Laurel Andrews at laurel(at)alaskadispatch.com