Pebble seeks renewed use permit amid new concerns of site maintenance

Nov 21, 2016

A new study suggests dead vegetation and acidic drill cuttings (light-colored material in foreground) remain years after the hole was drilled in Pebble claims.
Credit CSPP

The Pebble Limited Partnership is asking the state to renew the land use permit for its mineral claims northwest of Iliamna. Pebble says it has no immediate plans for further exploration or ground-disturbing activities, but will continue to operate under “care and maintenance” status. Some are questioning just how good of care Pebble is taking at the site.

KDLG’s Dave Bendinger has more:

Audio Transcript: Work at the Pebble site has been almost entirely shut down since Northern Dynasty lost the financial backing of partner Anglo American in 2013. Still, there are limited operations expected to continue that require a state permit.

"We operate under what’s called a Miscellaneous Land Use Permit, and our current permit expires at the end of this year," said Mike Heatwole, a spokesman for Pebble.

The company is seeking a renewal for two years on that permit. Heatwole says they have no plans at the moment to operate the Pebble project beyond what’s called “care and maintenance."

“What that really means is that we’re just keeping an eye on things there, we have a few assets that are still on the ground, while we look to secure a long term partner. And it really means that we’re not doing any active drilling or other exploration at our claim block.”

But a new report paid for by the United Tribes of Bristol Bay suggests Pebble is not taking proper care of past their drilling and exploration sites.

David Chambers is a geophysicist and the executive director of the Center for Science and Public Participation. Last August Chambers led a small team that helicoptered around the Pebble claims, visiting 107 out of an estimated 1355 well sites. They took pictures and collected water and soil samples. Chambers identified three main problems: one, that mineralized drill cuttings have been left on the tundra; two, that some well casings have been left sticking above the surface; and three, that some drill holes were not back filled and are allowing water to flow out.

“So those are the main three areas," said Chambers. "And then UTBB’s concern was just that DNR doesn’t require any reclamation bond to close these holes. And it’s not going to be terribly difficult to go out and clean these issues up, but logistically speaking it’s going to be very expensive.”

Chambers says he was particularly interested in the effect of the drill cuttings left on the surface. He says prior conversations with state and federal agencies has left him convinced that regulators don’t believe these acidic cuttings pose a problem.

"One of the things we were able to do out there was to sample these drill cuttings, and they are indeed acidic on the surface. And when they’re on the surface, as you can see from the pictures, things don’t want to grow on it. So I think it just calls for a policy change with management agencies that these cuttings have to be more carefully disposed than just dumping them out on the surface."

In the six page report, Chambers lays out his critiques and offers recommendations for better reclamation of Pebble’s past exploratory sites. He says the report will be his comment to DNR concerning the renewal of Pebble’s land use permit.

"They’re not grossly polluting the environment out there, but I just don’t think it’s proper reclamation and closure and I would … you can make your own opinion about that. We have photos of all these issues out there. And I would just ask anybody to look at the photos and say, is this the way want exploration operations to leave these drill holes. I’m not satisfied with that personally. I think, personally and professionally, they can do a better job."

For its part, Pebble says it does actively monitors the claims and makes improvements as needs be. Heatwole says PLP maintains a clean and compliant site.

"I think the state regulators have that view as well," he said. "This is arguably the most inspected, monitored mineral exploration site in Alaska. From our last field inspection which happened in July of this year, DNR said that they found that the ‘operator identifies and addresses maintenance and repair issues on site, and is consistent to industry best management practices.’ We run a very tight ship, we’re very proud of the work we do there.”

The independent study is available online through the United Tribes of Bristol Bay website. A public comment period with the state’s Department of Natural Resources is open through November 30.

Find the report here, and learn how to provide public comments to the state's Dept. of Natural Resources here.

Reach the author at dave@kdlg.org or 907.842.5281.