Northern Dynasty’s Pebble project passes key milestone

The proposed site for Alaska’s Pebble mine, at the headwaters of the rivers that empty into Bristol Bay. Credit: jsear | Flickr

Northern Dynasty Minerals (TSX: NDM) has welcomed a change of plan for its Pebble project in Alaska’s Bristol Bay region, which would now include an all land-based transportation route to connect the proposed copper-gold-molybdenum-silver mine in southwest Alaska.

Last Friday, the US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) — lead federal regulator for the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) permitting process — recommended a preferred development alternative for the proposed mine site: a two-lane, 85-mile access road along the northern shore of Lake Iliamna.

During a media availability session, USACE Alaska district regulatory division chief David Hobbie confirmed this was the “least environmentally damaging practicable alternative” (LEDPA) for the proposed Pebble mine as it would avoid the need for ferry transport across the lake.

If permitted, Pebble would be North America’s largest mine, with an estimate resource of 6.5 billion tonnes in the measured and indicated category containing 57 billion pounds of copper and 71 million ounces of gold, 3.4 billion pounds of molybdenum and 345 million silver ounces.

Northern Dynasty had previously included the road as a possible alternative in earlier filings with the government. President and CEO Ron Thiessen said the ‘northern transportation corridor’ — otherwise known as ‘Alternative 3′ in the Pebble EIS — has been extensively studied by the company’s US subsidiary (the Pebble Partnership) and presents several benefits over the lake ferry options.

USACE recommended a preferred development alternative for the proposed mine site: a two-lane, 85-mile access road along the northern shore of Lake Iliamna

“From a cost perspective, the various transportation alternatives evaluated as part of the Pebble EIS over the past several years are similar,” he said.

“We had thought the slightly smaller wetlands footprint associated with the lake ferry alternatives might make them preferable to the USACE and other regulatory agencies, but they clearly have judged an all land-based route to be superior from an environmental perspective.”

Thiessen added that the Pebble Partnership will work with each of the landowners along the northern corridor, and believes it will secure the authorizations needed to build and operate the transportation system.

Pebble Partnership CEO Tom Collier confirmed that the USACE contacted the company several weeks ago to request that it formally modify its project description to reflect the ‘northern transportation corridor.’

Northern Dynasty welcomes all-road transport plan for Pebble
Iliamna Lake. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Collier said the driving force behind the USACE’s route change was likely concerns about lake ferry operations expressed by cooperating agencies (including the US Environmental Protection Agency and US Fish & Wildlife Service) and members of the public.

Notwithstanding the recent change, Collier said Pebble had studied the ‘northern transportation corridor’ for more than a dozen years, and expects no planning or permitting delays associated with its selection as the LEDPA.

The northern corridor has the added benefit of including a pipeline to transport copper-gold and molybdenum concentrates from the mine site to the port site, thereby reducing truck traffic in the region by about half.

The announcement of a preferred development alternative for Pebble means a final permitting decision is one step closer, Collier added.

Environmentalist concerns

For decades, the proposed Pebble mine has been the subject of controversy in Alaska over its potential environmental impact on the world’s most productive wild salmon fishery.

Commenting on the new transportation plan, opponents of the mine said they were not made aware of the changes, and thus did not have time to respond. Bristol Bay Native Corp., which represents the native shareholders in the region, told Bloomberg that “this could also lead to legal challenge under the National Environmental Policy Act.”

Some also questioned whether the USACE had thoroughly reviewed the plan, while others called this a ‘huge bait and switch’ as Pebble has spent years trying to convince people of the viability of its southern route.

However, Collier responded that the plan “was on the table from the get-go” and said the reason it was selected “is because of the vicious criticisms aimed at the ferry route” by project opponents.