WRITTEN BY: Trevor Graff McClatchy Washington Bureau
PUBLISHED: July 09, 2013
To read full article, visit www.mcclatchydc.com

WASHINGTON — Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, this week called for the release of Pebble Partnership’s detailed plans and a timeline for developing the Pebble Mine site near the headwaters of Bristol Bay in Southwest Alaska.

In a letter to the leaders of Pebble Partnership released Tuesday, Murkowski said the group’s inaction in the permitting process continues to cause anxiety and confusion in the Alaskan communities near the site, located nearly 200 miles southwest of Anchorage on one of the largest salmon runs in the world.

“Alaskans need some certainty and clarity over how the Pebble Partnership intends to proceed,” Murkowski said in a news release. “I understand the complexity of a project like this, and I appreciate the investments that have been made in Alaska already. But a reliable timeline has been missing and I hope that the companies will provide one soon.”

John Shively, chief executive officer of Pebble Partnership, said he understands the senator’s concern but that rushing the proceedings isn’t in the best interest of the company’s stakeholders.

“Development of Pebble is a complex undertaking and getting it right takes time,” Shively said in a statement. “We will share a plan with Alaskans when it is ready and meets the high standards we have set for development at Pebble.”

Shively said he plans to contact Murkowski to discuss the proposed copper and gold mine project that has been mired in the permitting process for nearly a decade.

Northern Dynasty Minerals started the permitting process in November 2004 expecting to complete it in 2005. Pebble Partnership began the process of permitting again in 2008, promising a completed plan and permit applications in 2010, but it opted to delay the process.

The current partnership of Northern Dynasty Minerals and Anglo American published its own independent environmental baseline study, but the objectivity of the independent scientific reviews met strong skepticism from environmental groups.

With controversy surrounding the project, Pebble Partnership planning faced an Environmental Protection Agency watershed assessment in advance of the permitting process. In most cases, the watershed assessment occurs after the process.

The EPA’s move sparked angst from the partnership, which said the preemptive shutdown for the assessment didn’t follow normal procedure and has clouded the path forward, creating confusion for everyone involved.

The group hopes to have a new project in the permitting process this year, but the exact plans aren’t finished. In the latest draft of the EPA watershed assessment, three different hypothetical mine plans were examined in anticipation of the company’s decision.

“This remains an exciting opportunity for Alaska’s future, and we look forward to moving on to this next phase,” Shively said.

Environmental concerns are at the forefront of the discussion surrounding the embattled mine site. A major mining development could adversely affect Iliamna Lake and the Bristol Bay watershed that supports one of the largest salmon runs in the world and some 80 million sockeye salmon. An EPA study released in April said the mine could wipe out nearly 100 miles of streams and 4,800 acres of wetland.

Murkowski says Pebble Partnership’s failure to permit the project led to a “vacuum” that the EPA filled with hypothetical mine scenarios in its watershed assessment. The failure to take the next step has led to environmental anxiety and nearly a decade of waiting for Alaskan residents.

“Today, after years of waiting, it is anxiety, frustration and confusion that have become the norm in many communities – rather than optimism about the new economic opportunities that responsible development of the Pebble deposit might be able to deliver,” Murkowski said.

Email: tgraff@mcclatchydc.com