As Pebble chances fade, new projects raise hackles

By Manuel Quiñones | 02/05/2015 12:59 PM EST

Opponents of the proposed Pebble LP gold and copper mine in the Bristol Bay region of southwestern Alaska are sounding the alarm about the potential development of other mineral deposits in the area.

Opponents of the proposed Pebble LP gold and copper mine in the Bristol Bay region of southwestern Alaska are sounding the alarm about the potential development of other mineral deposits in the area.

U.S. EPA’s Bristol Bay watershed assessment, conducted to respond to concerns over Pebble, identified several other mining prospects in the area that could piggyback off their big brother’s infrastructure.

Deposits beyond Pebble have received little attention, particularly because EPA is proposing limits on Pebble and major mining companies have turned their back on Bristol Bay-area mining, at least for the foreseeable future.


But concerns resurfaced among mining skeptics when members of Kijik Corp., an Alaska Native corporation, received a newsletter recently announcing their leaders had decided to form a partnership with a company called Alaska Earth Sciences Inc. to potentially develop the Groundhog prospect, north of the Pebble site.

"Both AES and Kijik, as a first order of business for our newly formed joint venture, will be involved in aggressively marketing the Groundhog prospect to potential developers," Native corporation CEO Ventura Samaniego wrote in the newsletter.

News that leaders of a Native corporation are considering the development of another mine near Bristol Bay highlights the divisions in the area over whether to boost the economy through mining or fight off development to protect one of the nation’s most important fisheries.

The Nondalton Tribal Council — members of Kijik Corp. who are concerned about mining and caught off guard by the announcement — called the news a "slap in the face." It said in a statement, "We don’t want harm to come to our land and water in any way, shape or form. This is the foundation to our way of life and culture."

Samaniego described the Groundhog prospect as being in the vicinity of Groundhog Mountain and extending about 2 miles northwest of the Chulitna River. It’s an area replete with waterways.

"It should be noted that neither the Chulitna River drainage nor the Kijik Subsistence Land Settlement Trust is within the prospect area," said the newsletter.

But critics were unmoved. Community leaders expressed concerns about the mountain, a hunting ground for moose and caribou. They also called it sacred space.

The tribal council said it, along with a majority of residents, "have all publicly voiced our views about mining: We don’t want mining in our area."

In an email to Greenwire, Samaniego didn’t address the specific issues involved with potential mining but said the corporation would reach out to those concerned.

"At this juncture, we will attempt to undertake direct communications with the Nondalton Tribal Council to determine their specific concerns."

"Based upon our experience with Pebble," said his newsletter, "we recognize that a considerable amount is invested, in the exploration and environmental study process, and we want to be positioned to take advantage of the contract and work opportunities that are associated with these exploration activities."

In 2013, Liberty Star Uranium & Metals Corp., once a partner of Northern Dynasty Minerals Ltd., the company behind Pebble, gave up on area mining claims, citing Anglo American PLC’s pullout from the Pebble venture.

Rio Tinto PLC also had interests in the area, including the Groundhog deposit now in question, but followed Anglo American in giving them up.

Beyond the Nondalton Tribal Council, the National Parks Conservation Association has been at the forefront of expressing concern about mining deposits other than Pebble.

Just several miles downstream from the Groundhog deposit is the Lake Clark National Park and Preserve. Unlike indications early in the process, EPA’s proposed pre-permitting limits on Pebble do not cover other deposits.

"Nondalton’s drinking water flows straight from Lake Clark National Park and Preserve," said Melissa Blair, Alaska’s associate director for the National Parks Conservation Association. "This is one community that should never have to worry that new industrial mines may threaten their clean water, wild salmon and culture."

She added, "Our national park alone is not enough to ensure the fishery’s thriving biological diversity and balance, especially if salmon habitat and related resources in the park are compromised by mining activity upstream and outside its boundary."

Backers of mining in the Bristol Bay area, including Pebble executives, say their projects can coexist with Bristol Bay’s valuable salmon fishery. At least, they say, any proposed mines should be able to go through the permitting process. EPA’s proposed limits are stuck in litigation.