Story last updated at 7:15 PM on Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Pebble Mine proponent digs for support


For entertainment during the annual Share the Spirit spaghetti dinner fund-raiser and monthly Homer Chamber of Commerce luncheon, the Homer High School Swing Choir sang “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” and other holiday tunes. Santa Claus wasn’t there to listen to Northern Dynasty speaker Sean Magee’s want list, but he made his wishes clear.

“We’re asking for your support for a fair hearing on our project,” Magee said.

The vice-president of public affairs for Northern Dynasty Mines in Vancouver, B.C., Magee presented the latest version of a pitch he and other representatives have made to elected officials, chambers of commerce or anyone willing to listen. The basics have been laid out before: at the Pebble prospect near Iliamna on lower Cook Inlet, Northern Dynasty has been exploring a rich deposit of copper, gold and molybdenum, and proposes to build a world-class mine. How that would be done Northern Dynasty doesn’t yet know, Magee said.

One proposal is to build an open pit mine in the Pebble West prospect, where ore is closer to the surface. Recent exploration suggests a richer prospect in Pebble East — ore that’s deeper. To get it out, Magee said miners would dig shafts and tunnels down to the ore body, come under the ore and let it cave in, a process called “block caving.” Most likely the project would be a combination of open pit and block-caving mining, he said.

Northern Dynasty’s $125 million Pebble Project includes $50 million in environmental studies, one of the largest ever done in the Bristol Bay area, he said. Those studies will support Northern Dynasty’s applications for federal and state permits to develop a mine.

A common criticism of the Pebble mine is its possible impact on Bristol Bay and lower Cook Inlet fisheries, with organizations like Trout Unlimited and the Renewable Resources Coalition opposing it.

Magee said Northern Dynasty subscribes to a policy of no net loss to subsistence, sport and commercial fisheries.

“That doesn’t mean the project won’t have impact,” he said.

Streams or lakes affected by mining, such as filling in a lake with mine tailings, would be mitigated by enhancing fisheries — but not with farmed fish, Magee said in response to a question by Cook InletKeeper director Bob Shavelson.

“We think that ultimately mining and fisheries can coexist,” Magee said.

One proposal is to store tailings behind a 750-foot dam. About 13 square miles would be covered by tailings.

Magee noted the economic impacts and opportunities: the already 725 people who have worked at the project, or the 120 local workers. In response to a question about the impact on Homer’s economy, Magee said there would also be opportunities for contractors and other businesses. Workers would stay at a mine camp, as at the Red Dog Mine near Kotzebue.

Mayor James Hornaday asked about tax revenues from the mine. Magee noted mines pay a 3 percent state tax.

“Shouldn’t you guys be paying more?” Hornaday asked. “You were saying tens of millions of dollars. I was hoping for tens of billions of dollars.”

Magee said as Canadians, Northern Dynasty doesn’t have a vote in Alaska’s tax procedures. He didn’t know what taxes mines paid in Canada.

One questioner noted Northern Dynasty’s opposition to a proposal before the Alaska Board of Fish to create a fish refuge on state land in the Pebble prospect. The Board of Fish voted to study that idea further — a decision both Northern Dynasty and Trout Unlimited praised in press releases with differing spins. If the Pebble mine wouldn’t affect fisheries, why did Northern Dynasty oppose the proposal?

Magee said the proposal would set up new and unknown rules.

“We had no idea what a fish refuge would mean,” he said. “It created a lot of uncertainty.”

Magee said mined ore would be processed on site, ground up and mixed with water and piped 120 miles to the ocean. Processing would mostly be done through frothing floating, where the ground-up ore is mixed with air bubbles. Refining about 5 percent of the ore might need to be done by cyanide leeching, he admitted in response to a question. That would be done safely in a closed circuit, he said.

Roy Hoyt Jr. said high tailings dams like Northern Dynasty proposed have had a negative impact in his home state of Kentucky.

“I would suggest people look at that,” he said.

Stan Welles offered a different perspective.

“I’m very impressed,” he said. “I’d like to compliment Northern Dynasty.”

Michael Armstrong can be reached at