Story last updated at 7:49 PM on Wednesday, February 25, 2009

All sides agree: Tough Pebble questions OK


At a meeting last week on the Pebble Project, moderator Bobby Andrew apologized for the tone of some questions to Jack DiMarchi and Tom Crafford, two mining coordinators with the Alaska Department of Natural Resources Office of Project Management and Permitting who spoke on the permitting process for the proposed mine.


Photographer: Michael Armstrong, Homer News

Bobby Andrews, right, of Nunamta Aulukestai, moderates "A Dialogue on the Pebble Mine" at the Alaska Islands and Ocean Visitor Center as Tom Crafford, mining coordinator of the Alaska Department of Natural Resources Office of Project Management and Permitting, listens.

"We've put them on the spot," said Andrew, a Bristol Bay elder from Aleknagik. "We've asked some strong questions."

"And there should be," Crafford said.

Nunamta Aulukestai sponsored last week's talk with the Renewable Resources Coalition and the World Wildlife Fund. Nunamta Aulukestai (Yupik for "caretakers of our lands") is one of several groups concerned about the Pebble Project, and is composed of residents of the Bristol Bay communities most likely to be affected by the mine.

The meeting was attended by about 60 people and was another in at least a dozen held in Homer over the past few years by supporters or critics of a proposed copper, gold and molybdenum mine near Lake Iliamna. In the contentious debate about if and how the mine should be developed, both sides agree that strong questions should be asked.

"I think it's very important," said Mike Heatwole, vice president of public affairs for the Pebble Project, Anchorage. "You want to get all those questions on the table as best you can. We welcome all the questions."

Heatwole did not attend the Feb. 18 meeting, but Ben Mohr of the Pebble Project attended and was invited to answer questions if asked.

The Pebble Partnership, a consortium of Anglo American US (Pebble) LLC and Northern Dynasty Minerals Limited, proposes to mine an estimated 9.1-billion ton deposit on the west side of Cook Inlet near the villages of Iliamna, Newhalen and Nondalton.

The project is in what Heatwole called the pre-feasibility phase. Pebble has not yet begun the permitting process that would require more than 60 state and federal permits before it could start a mine.

At last week's meeting, Crafford and DiMarchi described the permitting process. Other invited speakers included Bonnie Gestring, a Montana resident who lives downstream from the Berkley Mine, an open pit mine. She spoke about other large mines and their impacts. Gestring works for Earthworks, an organization concerned about the effects of mining on communities. Dave Chambers, president of the Center for Science in Public Participation and an expert on mining techniques, spoke about technical issues at the proposed mine. Carol Ann Woody, a fisheries biologist, looked at risks to Bristol Bay salmon stocks from Pebble.

Building a mine means getting a spectrum of permits and not one big permit, the mining coordinators noted.

"There is not a single decision that trumps all the others," Crafford said. "Invariably there are a lot of nos. If the process can get to a yes, there are a lot of changes."

Crafford cited the Echo Bay mine near Juneau as an example where a mine couldn't make necessary changes. Mining regulators rejected a plan for disposing of mine tailings and the permitting process stopped.

Permits cover everything from road construction to a mine plan. A big concern is with impacts on water quality.

"So much of what we do in permitting is about water quality," DiMarchi said. "Is it going to produce acid or leach metals into the environment?"

That's one of the big questions about Pebble, Gestring and Chambers said. Ore-bearing rock contains minerals with varying degrees of acid-generating potential. Using the latest information publicly available from the Pebble Project, a 2003 report, Chambers showed a chart of 399 Pebble West samples that he said indicated many of the samples had high acid-generating potential.

If acid-bearing rock gets exposed to air and water and escapes from the mine, it can contaminate nearby aquifers or streams, something called acid mine drainage

"That's one of the concerns I have," he said.

Pebble has two ore-bearing areas. In Pebble West, ore lies closer to the surface and could be mined through an open pit. Pebble East has deeper ore and might require an underground mine.

Chambers said the most economical way to mine underground at Pebble would be through block caving. In block caving, horizontal transport tunnels are dug under the ore rock, and then vertical tunnels, called raises, are dug into the ore in a checkerboard pattern. The ore falls down the raises and is hauled out. When the ore rock runs out, the block is allowed to cave or collapse.

That can lead to surface subsidence, Chambers said. Subsidence can affect underground water flow, so even if acid-bearing rock gets buried underground, acid mine drainage could happen. That's a question Woody raised in her talk. How would the mine affect the flow of underground and surface water to salmon streams?

"We don't know where the groundwater goes," she said.

The lack of information coming out of the Pebble Project makes it hard to answer some of the big questions, Woody and Chambers said.

"Do we have enough information on Pebble? No. There's a paucity of information," Chambers said.

Pebble still is trying to find out that information, Heatwole said. That will come as the Pebble Project gets closer to the permitting process and a mine design.

"Once we have a project description, we very much want to go out and talk about things, and more important, listen," Heatwole said. "In the public affairs realm, we're in an odd spot. There are a lot of questions there aren't answers to."

From Pebble's perspective, there are questions about beneficial aspects that remain unanswered, too, he said.

"How many jobs are you talking about?" Heatwole said. "What would the business partnerships be? All of those are important facts to get out and talk about, and you can't really answer those until you get a project description."

As the process continues, more questions will be asked.

Michael Armstrong can be reached at

For information about the Pebble Partnership, visit Truth About Pebble's Web site is

The Renewable Resources Coalition's Web site is at CSP2's Web site is at A site on some of the science about Pebble from scientists concerned about Pebble is at

DNR has a Web site on the Pebble Project at

An article on the mining permit process, "Mine permit team can, does say 'no,'" was published in the Jan. 24, 2008, Homer News