Business leaders from the central Kenai Peninsula heard from the Pebble Ltd. Partnership during a joint Kenai and Soldotna Chamber of Commerce luncheon June 5.
Matthew Fagnani, Pebble’s vice president of business development, spoke for about an hour about the proposed mining project, its benefits and what detractors say on the potential harm of natural resource extraction.
As the proposed copper, gold and molybdenum mine in the Bristol Bay region has yet to enter the permitting phase, Fagnani said the main focus of the partnership is on environmental and engineering studies, as well as educating stakeholders.
“We realize Pebble is a long-term vision project. It’s not going to happen tomorrow, but people in the region will be able to continue to live and make jobs for themselves, for their shareholders, for their stakeholders, for their families,” Fagnani said.
The mine is southwest of Anchorage in a watershed that feeds into Bristol Bay. Several Yup’ik and Dena’ina villages are in the area, and subsistence is an important way of life for the sparse population.
Fagnani said he works with Alaska Natives to develop their ability to generate income outside of a subsistence lifestyle.
“So my primary task … is to work with village corporations and see how we can introduce them to other business, how we grow their competencies so that when we are a project, they have the experience and can participate in what can be an exciting project in Alaska,” he said.
According to the Alaska Department of Natural Resources the Pebble deposit is made of two contiguous deposits that contain more than 7 billion tons of ore, what Fagnani called the most significant copper deposit in North America.
Fagnani told community members that if the mine were to be approved and opened, the royalties would go to the state as the deposits are located on state land.
“To date, we have spent over $400 million on engineering and environmental research combined,” he said. “We have over 120 million invested in just environmental studies alone. This year’s budget alone is $87 million. These aren’t small budgets.”
The project, if approved and built, would generate about 1,000 year-round jobs, Fagnani said.
Still, approval is a long way off and Fagnani said the partnership’s expectation was that it would take 5-8 years before the mine was developed.
“There are 67 major types of permits both state and federal, we have to go over 80 different stream crossings. This is not a single agency … this is quite a lengthy process it has to go through,” Fagnani said. “We’re thinking that we’re at least four, maybe five years into permitting and then four to five years of legal.”
Part of the exploration process has also led to a lengthy, public tangle with the Environmental Protection Agency, a process which Fagnani said could have lasting implications for other proposals.
“The EPA put out a draft watershed assessment a year ago,” he said. “In our opinion, it was rushed. It’s inadequate. The literature review had no actual studies conducted, we presented them with our vast array of material and don’t believe they were considered. The EPA is basically trying to release a watershed assessment and it’s to try to … stop the project.”
Stopping the Pebble project before it could go into permitting could set a precedent, Fagnani said.
“We haven’t even said what we’re going to do yet, what effect could it have when you’re trying to develop something in the Cook Inlet? What effect could it have in Prudhoe Bay? We’re just asking that we’re allowed to go through the permitting regulatory process as it was designed,” he said.
Despite pushback against the proposed project, Fagnani said some Alaska Natives in the area see the benefit to having a new industry located in their backyards.
“They’re great people, energetic, they see the potential, they see the opportunity,” he said. “I think the same opportunity, the same potential is being seen out in the region because the elders do see the fact that they need a future for the children coming up. That the subsistence way of life is a good way of life, but it’s not the only way of life, that we need to have both jobs and subsistence and that fishing is no longer a sustainable industry for their livelihoods. Without resource development like this, there really is no way to work at home.”
Fagnani said there have also been several productive meetings about habitat restoration once the project is under way.
“Just paying our way out is the last resort, creating habitat is the first,” he said. “I thought it was really interesting to hear what some of the villagers had to say about recreating habitat. Recreating stream beds that haven’t been in flow for who knows how long or why they’re even out of flow and how you can recreate those flows and tributaries to replace some of the waters that you’re taking out of the habitat.”
He ended his presentation by saying that resource extraction was part of people’s daily lives.
“Oil fuels our cars, minerals build our homes with copper wire. Gold powers our sensors in our emergency controls for air bags. They fly our planes, it’s just part of where we are with our civilization,” he said.
Rashah McChesney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.