JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) — 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.
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.
Meanwhile, a mining company dropped plans to dig a mile-long tunnel for a copper development project near the Smith River after two environmental organizations filed a lawsuit challenging the proposal, state environmental regulators said Monday.
Tintina Alaska Corp. sent the state Department of Environmental Quality a letter withdrawing its request to amend an exploration license to build the tunnel at the Big Butte Copper Project in central Montana, DEQ spokesman Chris Saeger said.
Instead, the company plans to gather additional data from less-invasive exploratory drilling then file an application for a full mine-operating permit.
The company plans to file that application at the beginning of 2015, Tintina Vice President of Exploration Jerry Zieg said.
Tintina has conducted surface exploration at the site since 2010 in the belief there is high-grade, mineable copper underground. In January, the DEQ approved the tunnel, which would produce a 10,000-ton bulk sample of rock for testing.
Two environmental groups filed the lawsuit in March challenging the DEQ’s decision, saying the tunnel threatens to degrade surface and ground water quality and possibly decrease the amount of water running into Smith River.
The lawsuit alleges DEQ didn’t adequately analyze the environmental impacts the exploration could cause to nearby Sheep Creek, a major tributary to the Smith River. Sheep Creek drainage is a critical source of water for the Smith River and a site where a large number of rainbow trout spawn.
Tintina Vice President of Exploration Jerry Zieg said Monday the lawsuit caused the company to change its plans.
“With that uncertainty in timeline and lengthy litigation in front of us, we had to look for a different approach,” Zieg said.
Montana Environmental Information Center and Earthworks filed the lawsuit challenging the tunnel. MEIC Executive Director Jim Jensen said Tintina’s decision to withdraw its request to build the tunnel is a victory for the environmental groups, but his organization will watch closely to see what the company does next.
The environmental groups are likely to challenge any mine operating permit that is issued, he said.
“We intend to prevent that permit from being issued,” Jensen said. “We don’t know how (the DEQ) could possibly permit a mine in this highly acid-producing rock in the Smith River.”
The groups accused the company of planning to use the exploration tunnel to conduct mining activities under the guise of exploration and without taking the proper steps to obtain a mine operating permit.
Zieg said the 10,000 tons extracted to build the tunnel would be for metallurgical testing that would help the company properly design a mill and provide hydrologic and geotechnical data.
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