Northern Dynasty to press on at Pebble

The Northern Dynasty Minerals Ltd. CEO says the company is continuing its efforts to develop the giant Pebble minerals project southwest of Anchorage, and is encouraged about prospects for bringing in a new partner to replace Anglo American, which withdrew from the project in September.

The company is in talks with several major minerals companies, Northern Dynasty CEO Ron Thiessen told the Resource Development Council’s annual conference in Anchorage Nov. 21.

Pebble is about 200 miles southwest of Anchorage and about 18 miles north of Iliamna Lake.

Thiessen said work is now underway to finish applications for federal and state government permits and those are about 90 percent complete. The company’s management team in Alaska is being kept intact, he said.

“We are now focusing on completing the 10 percent needed to finish the applications, and we expect to have this done in early 2014,” Thiessen said.

However, the company would like to wait until a partner is on board before actually filing the applications.

“But we will be ready,” he said.

Thiessen told the Associated Press separately that the process of finding a partner could take six to 12 months and will start in earnest soon. He said if it appears the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is moving to take pre-emptive steps to restrict permitting for the project, the company will probably launch the permitting process on its own without waiting for a partner.

Anglo American had invested nearly $600 million in the project before withdrawing, and Northern Dynasty itself has contributed $180 million to date, Thiessen said.

The massive prospect is a world-class asset and Thiessen said he expects interest from a number of major mining companies.

“We are seeking the right kind of partner to advance this project,” he told the RDC conference.

When the AP asked how optimistic he was about finding a new partner and having the project in permitting this time next year, he said: “If I said 100 percent that would be a little less than what I really feel.”

The company is now organizing the massive set of technical and environmental data that has been acquired over the last six years and will open a data room for prospective investors, Thiessen said.

Northern Dynasty began getting calls from interested companies last fall, when reports were made that Anglo American would initiate an asset allocation review.

“Anglo’s portfolio was rich in long-term projects, of which Pebble was one, and the company’s decision was to refocus on shorter-range projects,” Thiessen said.

The decision had nothing to do with the quality of the Pebble prospect, which is one of the world’s largest undeveloped metals deposits. 

Pebble contains a copper-gold-molybdenum ore with 5.9 billion tonnes that are in the measured and indicated category and 4.8 billion tonnes of additional resources that are inferred. 

The deposit is one of the world’s largest undeveloped copper prospects and the largest undeveloped gold prospect, Thiessen said.

While Thiessen said Anglo’s departure from the project was a purely business decision, Pebble does face a host of local political problems, and opponents enlisted the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to do an assessment of regional environmental impacts.

The assessment included a hypothetical large mine project and said it would lead to losses of valuable salmon-rearing habitat.

Thiessen said the agency made no allowance for fisheries habitat restoration and enhancement that mining companies do routinely in Alaska and elsewhere in North America. Many of those are techniques endorsed by Trout Unlimited, one of the environmental groups opposing the mine.

A large mine at Pebble would impact 16 square miles in a 42,000-square-mile region, an area the size of Ohio, he said.

“We have identified many opportunities to enhance habitat and we believe we can not only offset any negative effects but leave fisheries habitat in an improved situation,” Thiessen said.

The mine is located at the headwaters of two streams that flow into two of seven of the major salmon-bearing rivers in the Bristol Bay region. 

“Being at the headwaters is actually an advantage because the water flows are low, the streams are small and some actually dry up in winter. The streams are not highly productive habitat, either,” he said.

Given that, there are many opportunities to minimize habitat impacts at the mine. If a mine were developed 21st-century water treatment processes would be involved, Thiessen said. He pointed to other modern Alaska producing mines as examples of successful water treatment management including the Fort Knox Mine near Fairbanks, Red Dog Mine north of Kotzebue and the Greens Creek Mine near Juneau.

Despite the world mining industry’s current problems, Thiessen is optimistic about Pebble. He believes major companies will shift back toward North America because of the investment environment is secure from threats like nationalizations.

“There is the rule of law here, and Alaska offers a strict, but stable regulatory environment,” he said.

Despite opposition from some local communities Thiessen believes people can be won over. The mine offers the prospect of being a major employer and taxpayer in a region of Alaska that is very economically depressed, he said.

The Associated Press contributed to this article. Tim Bradner is a reporter for the Alaska Journal of Commerce. He can be reached at tim.bradner@alaskajournal.com.

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