Questions and accusations flew during a community meeting Tuesday hosted by Pebble Limited Partnership at Land’s End Resort in Homer. A Homer Police officer stood at the doorway of the conference room.
The Partnership sent Vice President of Public Affairs Mike Heatwole and Vice President of Permitting James Fueg to speak with residents of Anchor Point and Homer in two separate meetings. The gatherings were to brief people not only on the permitting and environmental impact statement progress of the proposed Pebble Mine, but to go over activities in the proposed project that would impact the two local communities.
But the crowd at Tuesday’s meeting was more concerned with details of the project, the EIS process and what the potential fallout from the mine could mean for water and salmon in the state.
Heatwole and Fueg presented the history of the Pebble project from mineral discovery in the 1980s to the most current permitting process after a settlement was reached with the EPA to allow that process. If it came to fruition, Pebble would be a primarily copper mine operating for 20 years on a site 17 miles from Iliamna Lake across Cook Inlet. It would also involve five other minerals, including gold.
The Pebble representatives touted the redesigned project, especially its smaller footprint, lack of waste rock piles and the fact that it would no longer use cyanide for secondary gold recovery.
During the question and answer period of the meeting, Carly Wier, executive director of Cook Inletkeeper, expressed doubts by calling the presentation “a lovely fairytale” of no impacts to fish or subsistence culture.
Crowd members asked about the road leading from a port for barges to the mine site, and whether Pebble could guarantee it wouldn’t affect bears native to the area.
Steve Albert, a retired Department of Fish and Game fisheries biologist, said he was concerned about the road leading to the site, and the fact that it’s about 1 mile from the McNeil River State Game Sanctuary, where there are bears.
“There’s no way in the world you can ever convince me that having that road … essentially adjacent to that bear refuge, that you’re not going to have any affect on bears,” Albert said. Fueg said the bear passage through the area of the road will be managed by managing the traffic on the road, with things like setting speed limits and training the drivers. This response drew a round a laughter from the crowd.
They asked about what materials would be used for the road and where those materials would come from. Others inquired about the level of testing and study done to design a project that can withstand earthquakes and major weather events in the face of climate change. While there is not a fault under the proposed site, Heatwole said that in creating a project design, Pebble used the 1964 earthquake, a 9.2 magnitude tremblor, as its baseline. The issue the site would have to contend with is ground acceleration.
“So we begin with the ground acceleration generated by a 1964 size earthquake,” Heatwole said. “What would that do? If we had one in the subduction zone at Pebble, the ground acceleration at site would only be about 0.2 g’s (the acceleration due to Earth’s gravity) of ground acceleration.”
Fueg also described 75 years of weather reports from the area and how they informed the mine design in terms of water treatment and handling.
Others were skeptical about the EIS process itself, asking how many staff at the Army Corps of Engineers would be allocated to respond to citizen questions, and how Pebble Partnership arrived at the list of contractors it gave to the corps to choose from for the EIS.
Fueg explained that Pebble started with the pool of contractors in the United States that were eligible to handle a project like this. Then, Pebble had to exclude any contractor that had worked on the project in any capacity in the past. The remainder is what was given to the corps to choose from, he said.
One of the biggest concerns? Potential impact to salmon and fisheries in the area.
“Our fundamental principal as an operation is to coexist,” Heatwole said. “So, if we do our job correctly, we’re not going to impact fishing jobs.”
He cited environmental studies which he said point to Pebble not having an impact on fish outside of the mine site area.
“We know there’s going to be localized impacts from where we put our facilities and all of that, but beyond the boundaries of the mine, … we have no … impact on fish and wild resources. That’s what the EIS says.”
Local resident Kate Finn asked what kind of measures have been taken to make the proposed facility resistant to the effects of volcano eruptions.
Fueg said he didn’t think volcano activity would affect the mine any differently than any other environmental disruption. He said mining operations would be shut down in the case of a volcano eruption. He also said volcanic ash isn’t very different than the materials being put into tailing facilities to begin with.
“Those facilities are far better designed to handle that kind of material, if you will, than an average water retaining structure,” Fueg said.
When it comes to local impact, Pebble is planning two to five days of drilling in Anchor Point for geotechnical information that will aid the project in researching the pipeline crossing it also plans to put in Cook Inlet. Based on the east side of the Inlet in Anchor Point, the pipe’s purpose would be to bring natural gas to the site on the other side for power.
In Homer, Pebble Limited Partnership plans to have people based there to do marine studies regarding the potential pipeline across the Inlet. The Army Corps of Engineers will host a public meeting to accept comments about the Pebble Mine at 3:30 p.m. Thursday, April 11 at Homer High School. The final EIS is currently slated for early 2020.
The draft EIS is available to download and read at pebbleprojecteis.com.