Timeline

We are working toward the goal of submitting our initial project description for permitting. From there begins a review process, anticipated to take several years, in which we provide data for the roughly 50 state and federal mining permits, plans and regulations that ensure the Pebble Project is designed, built and operated in agreement with environmental regulations.

Construction is expected to take 4–5 years, whatever form the project design ultimately takes. We know that the Deposit is large enough, and rich enough, to sustain production for 20–25 years, and quite possibly operate for generations.

The Future

The Pebble Partnership is approaching its design plan with the ultimate destination in mind – closure. Whether in 2047 or 2077, the Pebble mine will eventually cease producing. What happens next is the culmination of a process that begins before we even break ground on the mine itself: reclamation.

Reclamation

Like many aspects of developing the Pebble Deposit, reclamation requires permitting in the state of Alaska. When mining is completed at the Pebble Deposit, the mine’s pit will gradually fill with rain and melt water, creating a large, deep lake. Waste rock will be graded to blend the lake’s contours with the natural topography, and bare ground will be covered with topsoil and seeded with native plant species. Mine drainage at the site will continue to be collected within the tailings facility and sent to a treatment plant prior to discharge. Samples will be regularly analyzed to ensure that the water complies with state and federal water quality standards before being released to the rivers.

Even then, the Pebble Partnership will still not be done watching over the mine site. The site will be monitored for a minimum of 30 years after mining has ceased. Inspections will be conducted by the state to ensure that the tailings facility remains structurally sound throughout its existence. We will employ workers to come to the site to take samples, make sure that the water is clean, that the fish and wildlife are thriving and that the area has been successfully revegetated.

We’ll work with the local and state governments to determine what aspects of the infrastructure, including the transportation route, energy and port facilities should be retained. It’s hard to know just how use of the region will develop over the lifetime of the Pebble Project, and our process will have to be flexible.

Status

But that’s the future. Where are we now? After long years of work, we’ve published the Environmental Baseline Document, the culmination of the first five years of independent scientific effort which continue on today. Now we’re evaluating design options to prepare permit applications and frankly, spending a lot of time in outreach efforts. It probably won’t have escaped your attention that this mine application process is running a bit differently than it’s supposed to.

Normally, once we had prepared our documentation and submitted our permit applications, the US Army Corps of Engineers, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, and various state agencies would review what we propose to build and then decide if it satisfied requirements. If so, great! If not, we’d work with them to understand their concerns and find a way to comply. That’s not what happened this time, however.

The (draft) Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment

The EPA was asked to preemptively shut down the Pebble Project in advance of our submitting permitting applications. They chose instead to conduct a study—the draft “Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment,” (BBWA for short)—using a hypothetical mine to predict impacts. EPA used an outdated model of a mine that could never even be permitted today. Upon publishing their draft document, the EPA solicited public response for a brief window of time during which many rural Alaskans were participating in the subsistence hunting, fishing and gathering activities that sustain them through the winter months. A time when very few can review a thousand-page government finding, attend community discussions and formulate a response.

There’s a huge body of rules and procedures in place that are meant to make this type of large resource development project more predictable. Like a NASA launch checklist, it can seem tedious and drawn-out going down the list line-by-line, step-by-step, but that’s how you make sure that every “t” is crossed and every “i” is dotted. It’s what both protects the environment and assures investors that while all ventures involve risk, if you follow the rules, you’ll be allowed due process. There’s no place for whimsy in government regulation.

Response to EPA

Tim Anelon of Iliamna speaks at a public hearing

You can read some of the public responses in our Newsroom’s Response to EPA page, including comments from Alaska state and federal representatives, 10 of the 12 Alaska Native Regional Corporations, trade associations, experts and concerned individuals—all of whom objected to the way the EPA is confusing the process. We all want what’s best for Alaska and Alaskans, and many of the comments we link to aren’t from proponents. They’re from people and groups who want the opportunity to get accurate facts, and are reserving judgment until that time. They’re asking for fairness and clarity. For all the ruckus that a very vocal opposition raises, quite a lot of Alaska is interested in facts, not fear mongering.

Independent Panel to Review Pebble Science

We’re still working on having an open and honest dialog about the project, and that’s extended our timelines a bit. In October 2012, the Colorado-based Keystone Center moderated an independent panel to discuss the science of the Pebble Environmental Baseline Document (EBD).

The sessions were open to the public, and we think many people benefitted, but rather than participate constructively many others chose to boycott, protest, and vilify Keystone. Keystone is a well-respected, professional organization and to imply, as some did, that Pebble’s underwriting of the sessions somehow boughtKeystone’s objectivity is simply unfounded. A scientist’s intellectual integrity is worth far more than the price of an airline ticket and a hotel room. Were we naïve to expect better? Perhaps, but we will continue to try and help Alaskans to better understand the facts on the ground, the nature of the mine approval process, and our commitment to open dialog.

The takeaways for Pebble within the Keystone process included positive support for the depth and breadth of the EBD studies, along with sound recommendations for future scientific studies to consider once a mine plan in finalized for permitting. This feedback is very valuable.

Proposal

As mentioned here and elsewhere, we haven’t finalized our project designs yet. But, we can sketch out what the Pebble Mine is likely to look like, in broad strokes.

The mine itself will be a modern open pit mine—nothing like the old sourdoughs’ tunnels that you might first think of. This is due to the way the minerals are distributed throughout the rocks of the Deposit—not in veins or nuggets, but something like a diffuse fog. To get at them, we’ll essentially be grinding the rock into a powder and using reagents to separate the copper, molybdenum and gold from the less-valuable material.

The leftover material, called the “tailings,” will be piped into a manmade tailings facility we will construct and engineer for containment. This is a source of concern for people—that the tailings facilities might fail—but we’re confident we can build a structure to withstand the test of time. Tailings structures in Chile survived an 8.8+ earthquake unscathed in 2010, due to modern engineering and technical design.

Tailings facilities are likely one of the most misunderstood aspects of modern mining. Opponents like to talk about them as if they were Hoover Dam-like structures, made of concrete, yet they operate quite differently. The structures are largely earthen and therefore more forgiving by nature than concrete. Ground-up layers of waste rock compact, adding natural stability. A shallow layer of water protects the tailings from exposure. The structure is engineered to integrate into the natural hills and valleys of the area. Water is constantly monitored within the facility, and monitoring wells around the outside of the facility provide further protection.

Meanwhile, the marketable minerals will be transported to the port facilities and loaded onto ships.

Permitting

Here’s something you may not know: before we even break ground, we’re required to set aside a bond (or other financial surety) large enough to cover the costs of properly closing-down and reclaiming the mine area at any stage of development or operation. It’s like paying into your retirement account, and it’s the responsible thing to do.

There are six major steps to permitting:

  • Baseline studies
  • Project design
  • National Environmental Protection Act Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) and public comment period
  • Permit applications
  • Draft permit issuance and public comment period
  • Final permit issuance

Pebble has spent eight years studying the environment associated with the Deposit, producing the Environmental Baseline Document (EBD), which published the first five years of study results in 2012. The EBD characterizes the environment around the Pebble Deposit and many studies continue today. Our engineers have worked to refine the optimum project plan—once that’s done, and we have a sense of where we would like roads and facilities to be situated, additional studies will be designed and conducted to validate those decisions. Following that, there are roughly 50 major federal, state and local permits, approvals, and authorization processes for us to clear.

Permit applications

Federal agencies involved include the US Army Corps of Engineers, the National Marine Fisheries Service, US Fish and Wildlife, EPA, the Mine Safety and Health Administration, the Coast Guard and the Department of Transportation and the FCC. State agencies include the Alaska Departments of Environmental Conservation, Natural Resources, Fish and Game, Transport and Public Facilities, Public Safety, and Labor and Workforce Development. Locally, there’s the Lake and Peninsula Borough’s development permit, too.

That’s a lot of agencies. They all have permits we must apply for, standards we must meet, and experts we must satisfy. The process is time-consuming and labor-intensive—which makes it expensive—and in part, that’s the point. You have to be very committed to make it through the permitting process, and the surest guarantee of success is meeting or exceeding every regulation in the book.

The Environmental Impact Statement (EIS)

We don’t produce the Environmental Impact Statement—that’s something that the lead federal permitting agency will generate. In theory, this document will represent the government’s best analysis of what it would mean, environmentally, should the Pebble Mine be constructed as we describe it in our project design and permit applications. Unlike the draft BBWA, the EIS must be based on the actual mine we are proposing to build, with all of its environmental safeguards, mitigation and modern engineering.

Public comment

The public role in permitting begins with the scoping process for the EIS. Then, a public comment period begins following the publication of the Draft EIS; during which, reviewers may provide additional information, challenge conclusions and offer alternatives. Comments are collected, deliberated and potentially folded into the final EIS.

Permits are issued

Typically, in a project this size, this comes after about three years. There’s a lot of paperwork, leg work and all other kinds of work involved in seeing a project through the permitting process. Most importantly, all major permits include a public review of the draft permit, providing Alaskans with another opportunity to offer information and comment on the types of conditions that will apply to this project.

Construction

Building the mine? As we said, it’s probably a 4–5 year job, though we don’t have a final plan yet. We’ve estimated that this phase will employ somewhere between 2,000 to 4,000 folks. We have to build port facilities, construct housing, offices, ore processing facilities, equipment storage, communication facilities… frankly, it sounds like an awful lot to build in just 4 or 5 years, but we believe we can do it.

Operation

Our initial approach is for a 20–25-year mine. We believe it’s possible that the project could extend for decades—the Deposit may hold a century’s worth of minerals. As mining technology advances, we will adopt whatever new tools and methods are available to operate Pebble in a more efficient and environmentally friendly manner. While advances may extend the project site's operational lifetime, we don’t anticipate that those changes will impact staffing levels, which, all told, will be a mix of around 1,000 blue-, white- and no-collar positions working directly on the Pebble payroll. We hope that many of these 1,000 employees will be hold-overs from the construction phase who are able to take advantage of retraining programs and remain in the Pebble family. The goal at Pebble is to maintain or exceed a 60% local hire rate.

Additionally, we anticipate contracting-in a camp services / facility management team, which would probably employ around 100 people. Beyond that? There will surely be stevedores at the port facility, PAs in the on-site clinic, pilots, truck drivers, store managers and clerks, highway construction crew, emergency medical technicians, line cooks… let’s just say that new people and new infrastructure invariably mean that there will be many new jobs. Not all of them directly on the Pebble payroll, to be sure, but many sub-contracting opportunities, as well as the type of organic entrepreneurialism that always springs-up when development and infrastructure comes to a region.