Giant Alaska copper-gold mine gets final environment nod after 15-year fight

(Image courtesy of Pebble Partnership.)

Northern Dynasty Minerals (TSX: NDM) has cleared the last environmental hurdle for its proposed Pebble copper-gold-molybdenum mine in Alaska, almost two decades after developers first started considering the project.

The US Army Corps of Engineers issued on Friday a final environmental impact statement (EIS), backing the controversial mine in the Bristol Bay region.

The decision opens the door for Northern Dynasty to obtain the federal go-ahead as soon as late August.

“There is more work to be done, but the publication of the Final EIS today is a clear validation that Pebble can be developed in an environmentally sound and socially responsible way, creating benefits and opportunities for the people of Bristol Bay and all Alaskans,” President and chief executive, Ron Thiessen, said in the statement.

He noted that the final EIS describes the proposed open-pit mine and related infrastructure as an operation that will protect water quality, fisheries, wildlife and other valued natural resources. Based on that, the Corps believes the mine can secure all necessary federal and state permits in the future.

Based on the positive environmental assessment, Northern Dynasty will now start seeking a major mining company to partner with on the project

Opponents to the project didn’t wait to express their discontent.

“The science is overwhelmingly clear: the proposed Pebble Mine is a catastrophe waiting to happen,” said Collin O’Mara, president and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation.

“It’s simply unconscionable to fast-track such a high-risk project with a shoddy environment review that failed to evaluate the consequences, should the proposed six-story dam fail and release 10 billion gallons of toxic waste into Bristol Bay’s treasured, pristine ecosystem,” O’Mara said. 

“We are not talking about minor impacts, but the wholesale destruction of over a hundred miles of rivers and streams,” Bonnie Gestring, northwest program director for environmental group Earthworks, said in a statement. “No other mine in North America, and perhaps the world, would have such a devastating effect on clean water.”

Tom Collier, chief executive officer of Pebble Partnership, the project developer, said the publication of the Final EIS was the most significant milestone in the project’s history.

“Today was really fifteen years in the making,” Collier said. “[We have] a project that can be done responsibly, without harm to the Bristol Bay fishery, and provide meaningful contributions to the communities closest to the project,” Collier said.

Northern Dynasty said that, based on the positive environmental assessment, it would now seek a major mining company to become a partner in the project.

Contentious project

Since Teck Resources’ predecessor, Cominco, began exploring the prospect in the 1980s, Pebble has divided conservationists, local activists, fishermen and regulators.

Northern Dynasty secured a 100% ownership in Pebble in 2005. Two years later, it entered into a 50:50 partnership with Anglo American (LON:AAL) to develop the massive deposit.

The Canadian miner became again the sole owner of Pebble in 2013, after Anglo American walked away from the project, in which it had invested $573 million.

Pebble’s permitting process has been surrounded by controversy and delays. Perhaps one of the most publicized issues was the US Environmental Agency’s (EPA) decision in 2014 to propose restricting the discharge of mining waste and other material in the area.

Criticism prompted the Vancouver-based company to submit a new, smaller mine plan that includes lined tailings, and discard the use of cyanide in the gold extraction process.

Prospects brighten for Northern Dynasty Pebble mine on leaked draft study
The Pebble project is located about 200 miles (320km) southwest of Anchorage in the Bristol Bay region. (Image courtesy of Northern Dynasty.)

Pebble began moving forward after the election of Donald Trump in November 2016. In July last year, Northern Dynasty scored a big win as the EPA scrapped the proposed restrictions on mining operations in Bristol Bay, which prevented the project’s consideration.

The agency also issued a letter at the time, saying the project may result in substantial and unacceptable impacts to aquatic resources. That observation was a specific step in a sequence established to deal with inter-agency disagreements over Clean Water Act permits.

draft version of the EIS released in February, however, indicated that the project could co-exist with the fisheries and water resources of the Bristol Bay area.

The news was followed in May by the EPA issuing a new letter that downplayed the possible loss of streams and other wetlands the project might cause.

$342 billion deposit

If permitted, Pebble would be North America’s largest mine, with a productive life of at least 20 years.

Headaches for Northern Dynasty, however, may not end up there. A coalition of local residents and national environmental groups has vowed to challenge the permit in court.

There is also the possibility that the next administration blocks it once again, as happened during Obama’s presidency, should Democrats win the White House in the fall.

Current resource estimate includes 6.5 billion tonnes in the measured and indicated categories containing 57 billion pounds of copper and 71 million ounces of gold, 3.4 billion pounds of molybdenum and 345 million silver ounces.

The gold price is within sight of all-time highs above $1,900 an ounce, copper trades near two-year highs just short of $3 per pound, silver is exchanging hands for more than $20 for the first time in seven years and molybdenum has recovered to $9 a pound from less than $5 two years ago.

At ruling prices, Pebble is one of the richest deposits in the world based on resource estimates – worth a combined $342 billion.