By MARK HAMILTON
(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.