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‘We’re on the cusp of a resolution,’ says Hunter Dickinson president of Pebble spat

26th January 2016

By: Henry Lazenby

Creamer Media Deputy Editor: North America

  

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VANCOUVER (miningweekly.com) – Director and president of diversified mining group Hunter Dickinson Ron Thiessen believes that project developer Northern Dynasty Minerals’ 100%-owned subsidiary, the Pebble Limited Partnership (PLP) is close to resolving its dispute with the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Speaking at the Vancouver Resource Investment Conference, held this week, Thiessen, who is also Northern Dynasty’s president and CEO, noted that, once the EPA issues were resolved, the PLP would be free to undertake a “normalised” permitting process for its flagship Pebble mine, in south-west Alaska.

“We’re on the cusp of a resolution. The US will not allow this travesty [of the EPA] to create a precedent, as it would have far-reaching consequences. I think the EPA would ultimately be proven wrong. I believe in a near-term outcome,” stated Thiessen during a question and answer session with Marin Katusa of Katusa Research.

The PLP last year filed a federal legal action arguing that, without a permit application outlining plans to develop the Pebble polymetallic deposit in hand, the EPA's stated intention to pre-emptively veto the Pebble project – under a rarely used Clean Water Act Section 404 (c) regulatory process – exceeded the federal agency's authority and violated federal laws.

While the EPA had the authority under the CWA to veto Section 404 ‘dredge’ or ‘fill’ permits issued by the US Army Corps of Engineers – if it determined that the permitted activity posed an unacceptable risk of adverse effects to aquatic resources – it had to do so based on an actual mine permit application specifying both a specific disposal site and specific fill material.

Thiessen strongly argued that the EPA had erred in its actions and decision to conduct an assessment of Alaska’s Bristol Bay watershed, on which its veto was based.

With litigation against the EPA pending, a preliminary injunction prohibiting the EPA from acting on its right to veto in place, and several US Congressional committees pursuing investigations into EPA misconduct, Thiessen expressed confidence that the PLP's standoff with the EPA would be resolved this year, leaving PLP free to initiate federal and state permitting, unencumbered by any “extraordinary development restrictions”.

Thiessen advised the crowd of investors and mining executives that the PLP had enough cash to see the litigation process through, until it embarked on a normalised permitting process.

Luckily, time was on Dynasty’s side. Thiessen noted that the project was not being built today, and once the normalised permitting process had started, a construction decision would be made about four years from now, in 2020, when he believed the market environment would be completely changed compared with today’s depressed commodity market outlook.

DAVID VS GOLIATH
Thiessen’s message to the people of Alaska was that they could indeed have mining and their fisheries thrive side-by-side, with no impact on one another.

He noted that the PLP had compiled about 27 000 “pages of excellence” when it conducted its baseline studies for the Pebble project over the last several years, which it submitted to the EPA for inclusion in the Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment. “However, the agency did not touch it because the facts did not reconcile with their preconceived decision to veto the project, before a permitting application had even been launched.

“They concocted their assessment, and even their own peer reviewers were not satisfied with the report’s ethics. Their study is not worth the paper it is printed on,” he asserted.

While no figure was disclosed by the EPA, Thiessen estimated the EPA spent about $5-million on its assessment, while the PLP had, to date, spent about $150-million on its baseline studies.

When asked whether it was a case of David versus Goliath, Thiessen retorted that he quite liked the analogy, since everyone knew that David, in the end, slayed the giant.

He also pointed out that, while the injunction against the EPA was still in effect, the court had also ordered the EPA to provide more information which, according to Thiessen, uncovered error upon error in the EPA’s methodology and assessment.

PRECIOUS PEBBLES
Thiessen described the Pebble deposit as being eight to ten Tier 1 projects rolled into one, with the project still being open in three directions.

The PLP had run into “a perfect storm”, according to Thiessen, with bad politics and a market meltdown conspiring to halt the project in its tracks and causing major partners to walk away. Former PLP partners Anglo American and Rio Tinto had walked away from the project after sinking about $750-million into exploration on the project.

While Anglo left because it was facing a storm of its own, Rio left because of a political decision. Both majors did not complete earn-in agreements, leaving the project much higher up the value curve – all to Dynasty’s benefit.

“All the heavy lifting is done. We have a ten-billion-tonne resource that is open in three directions. We can answer any question on the project with confidence because we have done our research.

Thiessen said the company had opened a data room, and that potential investors, ranging from major mining companies to Chinese investors, were poring over several terabytes of data.

The Pebble deposit was one of the greatest exploration discoveries ever. The current resource estimate included 6.44-billion tonnes in the measured and indicated categories containing 57-billion pounds copper, 70-million ounces of gold, 3.4-billion pounds of molybdenum and 344-million ounces of silver. It contained 4.46-billion tonnes in the inferred category, containing 24.5-billion pounds copper, 37-million ounces gold, 2.2-billion pounds molybdenum and 170-million ounces silver.

Edited by Samantha Herbst
Creamer Media Deputy Editor

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