Rio Tinto to give away Pebble Mine project shares

JUNEAU — A major shareholder of a company behind a contentious Alaska mine project on Monday announced it was giving its shares away to two Alaska charitable organizations, at least one of which belongs to a larger group that has come out publicly against the project.

London-based mining company Rio Tinto announced plans to give its $16 million worth of shares in Northern Dynasty Minerals Ltd. to the Alaska Community Foundation and the Bristol Bay Native Corp. Education Foundation.

“By giving our shares to two respected Alaskan charities, we are ensuring that Alaskans will have a say in Pebble’s future development and that any economic benefit supports Alaska’s ability to attract investment that creates jobs,” Rio Tinto chief executive Jean-Sebastien Jacques said in a statement posted on the company’s website.

“This gift provides an example of what open discussion and relationship building between stakeholders with differing views can accomplish. However, (Bristol Bay Native Corp.’s) opposition to the proposed Pebble mine has not changed,” Bristol Bay Native Corp. President Jason Metrokin said in a statement.

The Pebble Mine project — a massive gold-and-copper prospect near the headwaters of a world-premier salmon fishery in Alaska’s Bristol Bay region — has faced a series of setbacks by those worried about its environmental repercussions.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in February announced it was taking the first steps toward restricting or even prohibiting development of a mine in that area of Alaska, but stressed that no final decision has been made.

While the rarely used EPA process is underway, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers cannot approve a permit for the proposed Pebble Mine project.

Rio Tinto said its interest in Northern Dynasty didn’t fit with its strategy.

The company late last year said it would review its major holding in Northern Dynasty Minerals under pressure from the overseers of pension funds in California and New York City, who said there were risks to Rio Tinto’s reputation for being associated with the proposed Pebble Mine project.

“This is good news for both Rio Tinto’s investors and the ecology of Bristol Bay. It is clear that Northern Dynasty’s actions were a folly with costly consequences for both its investors and the environment,” New York City Comptroller Scott M. Stringer told The Associated Press.

Northern Dynasty President Ron Thiessen said in a statement the company was “pleased” Rio Tinto was providing “meaningful, long-term economic contributions” to charitable organizations.

“We’re pleased that the people of Bristol Bay and Alaska will now have a direct stake in the project,” Sean Magee, a Northern Dynasty vice president, told the AP. “We believe that local ownership and local input can provide a significant benefit for the advancement of the project.”

He said they plan to schedule meetings with both Alaska organizations, possibly as soon as this week.

Magee said the meetings would provide a “start to understand a little bit of what their intentions are.”

The Alaska Community Foundation, a philanthropic organization, holds more than $70 million in 300 funds for the benefit of Alaskans.

The group’s president and CEO, Candace Winkler, said they have known about the donation for a few days.

“We feel like we are coming into our own, and this is a great indication of trust for us,” Winkler told the AP.

This particular donation will be used to fund a workforce development initiative.

The announcement followed release of an EPA report in January that found large-scale mining in the Bristol Bay watershed posed significant risk to salmon and could adversely affect Alaska Natives in the region, whose culture is built around salmon.

The Pebble Partnership has called the mine deposit one of the largest of its kind in the world, with the potential of producing 80.6 billion pounds of copper, 107.4 million ounces of gold and 5.6 billion pounds of molybdenum over decades. 

Northern Dynasty has been looking for a new partner after Anglo American PLC pulled out last year, citing a prioritization of projects. Pebble has criticized the EPA process as flawed and has said that it has yet to finalize its mine designs.

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