Year in Review: Pebble saga nears end as Army Corps denies key permit

  • A helicopter hovers over a camp at the Pebble mine prospect in this 2010 file photo. The decade-plus fight over the project appears to be nearing an end after the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers denied the compay’s proposed mitigation plan in November. (Photo/Andrew Jensen/AJOC)

The Pebble project ended the year on life support after the Army Corps of Engineers handed down strict wetlands mitigation requirements the company was not able to meet.

From the outside things appeared to be moving well for the company through midsummer; the Corps released the final Pebble environmental impact statement in July that largely concluded that the large open-pit mine plan and its extensive support infrastructure would not materially impact salmon returns or the region’s water-plentiful ecosystem.

The final EIS backed the conclusions of the draft document published in 2019. Both of the documents were widely dismissed by Pebble opponents for lacking in-depth science and being rushed to fit permitting within the timeframe of the Trump administration.

In late August, Corps Alaska District regulatory chief David Hobbie wrote a letter to Pebble Partnership leaders requiring mitigation within the Koktuli watershed for impacts to more than 3,000 acres of wetlands lakes and streams, among other mandates.

And it needed to be done in 90 days.

Sens. Dan Sullivan and Lisa Murkowski first issued statements saying they didn’t believe the project could be permitted after the mitigation requirements were released and hardened their stances against Pebble after tapes were released in September of Pebble Partnership CEO Tom Collier and Northern Dynasty CEO Ron Thiessen discussing project expansion and alleged friendly relationships with Alaska politicians with individuals posing as investors.

Pebble, after several meetings with state officials, made the deadline with a package preserving 31,000 acres of aquatic resources and 112,000 acres of mostly state land in the watershed.

However, Corps Alaska leaders denied the permit shortly before Thanksgiving on the grounds that Pebble “is contrary to the public interest.”

Company leaders have said they will appeal the decision.

Murkowski has discussed, in concept, the idea of transferring the state land in the Pebble area to federal control.

2. Ambler road advances

The State of Alaska got the green light from the feds to build a 211-mile mine access road along the base of the Brooks Range in the Interior in July and Gov. Mike Dunleavy said he wants more funding for the project aimed at opening a new mining district.

Bureau of Land Management Alaska officials signed a record of decision providing the State of Alaska right-of-way access across federal lands for the Ambler mining district access road July 23. The road would open the roughly 75-mile-long mineral belt along the southwest portion of the Brooks Range for development of its copper, zinc, cobalt and precious metals.

The area has been explored for decades but its remote location far from the road system has precluded additional work.

Local opposition to the Ambler project from villages such as Evansville and Bettles, near where the road would connect to the Dalton Highway, has focused on the belief the road and eventual mine traffic would disrupt the migration of caribou needed for subsistence harvests.

Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority officials leading the project are modeling their plan for an industrial toll road after the 52-mile haul road to the Red Dog zinc mine in Northwest Alaska that the authority financed in the late 1980s.

The AIDEA board took $35 million from the authority’s large Revolving Fund to support development of the road in April.

3. Greens Creek, Fort Knox growing

Two of Alaska’s largest hard rock mines took significant steps to grow their operations this year.

Hecla Mining Co., owner of the the underground Greens Creek mine on Admiralty Island near Juneau, filed an amended plan of operations with the Forest Service Oct. 1 that calls for expanding the Greens Creek tailings disposal facility footprint by 14 acres, or about 20 percent, to store an additional 4 to 5 million cubic yards of tailings and waste rock produced at the mine.

Hecla expects the current 66-acre facility will likely be filled by about 2031, at which point the mine would have to be closed, according to a company statement.

The company’s plan for incremental expansion is the third such request by the Greens Creek operator in the past 20 years. Most recently Hecla proposed a 116-acre expansion to the mine’s tailings storage facilities in 2010; the Forest Service ultimately approved an 18-acre project in 2013.

The owners of the Fort Knox gold mine also picked up a new gold deposit for $93 million down the Alaska Highway near Tok that will be processed at the Fairbanks mine.

Kinross Gold Corp. said Sept. 30 that it had acquired a 70 percent interest in the Peak Gold project from Royal Gold and Contago ORE Inc.

Kinross intends to develop the Peak Gold deposit into a short-lived open pit mine and truck the ore north to the Fort Knox mill for processing. The trip would involve hauling the crushed ore up the Alaska and Richardson highways, through Fairbanks and up the Steese Highway to the mine site near Chatanika.

Scheduled to open in 2024, the Peak Gold mine is expected to produce roughly 1 million ounces of gold equivalent from grades of about 6 grams per ton over 4.5 years.

Kinross estimates the $110 million project will have an all-in sustaining cost of approximately $750 per ounce.

Updated: 
12/16/2020 - 9:14am