Pebbled: Prices of metals may mean mining projects have better luck moving ahead



(Editor’s note: This is the 10th in a series by Mark Hamilton about the history of the Pebble Project in Alaska.)

With a significant move upward in the price of metals, Alaska will begin to see more mining projects begin the long journey to production. 

The permitting process is a long and rigorous one, but necessary to determine if a development project meets the stringent requirements needed to protect the environment. The process begins years before the actual submission of a project for permitting.  

The developer, at significant expense, must put together an environmental baseline study to document the existing physical, biological, and social environment of the site. This extensive study will document the fish, water and air, the animals, the plants, and the human utilization of the study area. The study will begin the examination of the water, surface, and ground, and its usage by season by animals and residents of the area.  

The goal is the full understanding of the flora, fauna, and hydrology. During this pre-permit time frame, several other subjects will be explored. Those include any historical sites that might be affected by the development, identification of migratory use of land or water, areas reported to be important to the indigenous culture, any presence of rare or endangered species, and other issues that may be of concern.

As this multi-year investigation proceeds, preliminary engineering assessments will begin. This is an extremely complex endeavor. You don’t just dig a hole in the ground. The investigation includes many hundreds of core samples to understand the quality and distribution of the ore. There may be 1,000 or more drillings, 75% to map the ore, and 25% discovering the ground water.

This will inform the method of extraction, from a host of possibilities.  Developers will understand how the various ore types would react in the processing plant, the grind size, the needed agents and so forth. They will decide the characteristics of the tailings (the remaining crushed rock after the ore has been extracted).  The characteristic will advise the requirements of the tailings facility in terms of location, size, and whether precautions such as lining of the facility are warranted.  

Just selecting the site for the tailings facility may require hundreds more drillings. They will learn everything possible about the needed water for the mine, understanding its source and the variations by year and in extreme flood scenarios. They will explore the uses by local people and animals, by season. They will explore the power requirements, explore possible renewable solutions, determine the usage of natural gas, hydro, or diesel to produce the power.

Finally, they will need to understand how one gets to the mine, and how the ore gets out. Is it roads, ferries, ports? What route will it take?  Will the ore be transported by slurry pipeline, trucks, or something else? Each of these considerations influences the other.  And the balance of them determine the plan to be presented for permitting.

When the developers have sufficient data and design concepts, they will apply for a permit to initiate the permitting process. If it involves wetlands, the lead f ederal agency typically will be the United States Corps of Engineers.  So much of Alaska is wetlands, that we will certainly see this agency in the future.

Having spent 31 years in the United States Army, I have great faith in the integrity of the Corps. I note that in the case of Pebble Mine they refused to be part of the EPA’s Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment charade, noting that they didn’t have a request for permit as yet. Many of these submissions for permits will be judged to need an environmental impact statement.  In that case, the Corps of Engineers will select an independent third-party consulting firm. The developer does not make this selection, but subsequently will be required to pay for the work to be done.

With the assistance of the independent third-party, the Corps of Engineers will begin the process of “scoping” for the Environmental Impact Statement. In essence, they are determining the test that must be passed in order for the project to receive a positive record of decision. This is a sort of “open book” test.  Remember those?

The Environmental Protection Agency wrote the guidelines and expectations.  It is published in a document called EPA and Hardrock Mining: A Source Book for Industry in the Northwest and Alaska. So begins the very formal evaluation of the science and engineering and environmental considerations. We will follow the process in next week’s column.

The “Pebbled” series at Must Read Alaska is authored by Mark Hamilton. After 31 years of service to this nation, Hamilton retired as a Major General with the U. S. Army in July of 1998. He served for 12 years as President of University of Alaska, and is now President Emeritus. He worked for the Pebble Partnership for three years before retiring. The series continues next week. 

Pebbled 1: Virtue signaling won out over science in project of the century

Pebbled 2: Environmental industry has fear-mongering down to an art

Pebbled 3: The secret history of ANWR and the hand that shaped it

Pebbled 4: When government dictates an advance prohibition

Pebbled 5: EPA ‘just didn’t have time’ to actually go to Bristol Bay

Pebbled 6: The narrative of fear

Pebbled 7: The environmentalists who cried wolf

Pebbled 8: Build your media filter based on science, not narrative

Pebbled 9: The history of hysteria


    Another great mining project, one that would’ve brought prosperity to many individuals and Alaskan Companies. However, it will eventually succumb to it’s demise, a long an arduous death, due from an ever stifling and incessant Guv’ment Bureaucracy that brings very little meaningful benefit (ie – no added value), but rather, only adds enormous and wasteful costs to these types of Mega-Projects.
    If you were a Resource Development Company (ie – O&G, Mining, Timber, etc), you would most certainly reconsider any-n-all development plans in AK if you seriously took into account only but a few of these existential and grave threats:
    – Biden // Harris // Pelosi // Schumer
    – 30×30 Land Grab
    – D.Haaland // G.McCarthy // S.Jewell
    – National Climate Advisory
    – Radical US 9th District Court
    Large companies, wanting to develop mega sized projects weigh the “Risks vs. Rewards” and, Alaska’s risk-vs-reward ratio is unrealistic for reasonable consideration. Therefore, many companies pursue projects elsewhere and, so goes the opportunities for Alaskans and Alaskan Companies. Ultimately, Alaska continues it’s journey towards “Parkland” status with the best opportunities for your kids is a Guv’ment employee!

  2. Pebble won’t happen until or unless we see paint being sprayed and thrown at people wearing Patagonia clothing in public, and fly fishing is outlawed. Obviously that is not going to happen. When the Pebble executives were trapped by an environmental muffin in a short skirt that was the capstone blow for Pebble. I am truly sorry because it’s on state land, it’s a worthwhile project, and it sends a terrible message worldwide to have a firm lose so much money here. Truly, Pebble won’t happen unless China wins the coming world war and thereby obtains Alaska.

    • China is winning the ongoing People’s War declared against the US. Our hybrid fascist government/corporate system is sustaining itself by massive loans from the CCP and quantitive easing. A theoretical “climate crisis” has been created for political reasons and the solutions largely are to outsource our manufacturing base to CCP ownership who are vastly increasing coal based energy production to meet the increased volume of demand. Our diminished manufacturing activity results in achieving Co2 reduction goals here, but no one explains how that decreases the global nature of the “threat”. What it does accomplish is to subsidize a fascist system in China that would otherwise have long since failed. Our Alaska natural resources have been set aside as secured assets for CCP “investments” in our federal government. At such time as the loans are called and we cannot possibly tax sufficiently from our diminished economic base Pebble and a host of other developments will happen.

  3. Lots of good stuff in this series of articles, but keep wondering when you’re going to get around to addressing the mineral tax issues.

    We’ve had since 1959, don’t you think it’s about time?

  4. Not a credible author for his prior positions on mining education at the UAF. Contradictory philosophy when compared to past actions, or inactions.
    Why Hamilton continues this series is a strange thing. Could be for atonement, or, an attempt at some non-existent influence peddling. Hamilton serves us best by disappearing and going fishing. With his HUGE double pensions (military and State of Alaska), he can retire in luxury and be forever irrelevant.

    • I think he’s already there, Paul. Maybe he just wants Pebble owners to sell him some of the mineralized land nearby so he can build a new School of Mines. Or, a new fishing and hunting lodge for retired UA administrators.??

      • He probably has a lot of free time on his hands and all of that retirement money is making him feel a bit guilty about his past.

  5. Need Jobs to support our economy Biden shut down our jobs in the oil and Timber need to for mining to come back been Studying for for more than 35 yrs quit giving us free money our children don’t want go to work when they sit home and the government pay them to do nothing

  6. What is the net present value of a mineral discovery if it takes 20 years to do the baseline studies, jump through all the hoops to obtain permits., and then endure all the lawsuits? Every year we are buying more of our minerals from China. We have better environmental protections than they do and should be able to permit in a more reasonable timeline and produce our own resources.

  7. If we want to go “green” and have electric at the rate that we are being told we must, we will need every last mine we can possibly tap over the next 100 years no matter the environmental cost of those mines. Solar panels, wind turbines, tidal power, batteries all of these things require enormous amounts of mined material and they must be so overbuilt that we need 3, 4, or even more than 10 times as much of these kinds of power generation and storage than what conventional low cost reliable power sources provide.

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