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The Associated Press May 3, 2011, 8:08AM ET

Alaska: Pebble Mine taking step toward permitting

A world-class gold-and-mine prospect near the headwaters of Bristol Bay is moving one step closer to the permitting phase.

On Monday, a spokesman for Pebble Limited Partnership, Mike Heatwole, said a $91 million work program is scheduled for this year, with the main objective being to create a detailed project description and proposal for developing the deposit that will serve as a precursor to seeking project permits.

The so-called "prefeasibility study" is expected to be completed sometime next year, he said.

Another important piece required before seeking permits is an environmental baseline, Heatwole said. Hundreds of scientists contributed to Pebble's baseline report, which is essentially an inventory of water, soil, wildlife, fish and other resources in the area. He said the company plans to make that report public later this year.

The proposed Pebble Mine is at the heart of an intense public relations campaign, with supporters touting its job-creating potential and opponents fearing it could have a devastating impact on the environment and way of life in rural Alaska.

Bristol Bay is home to a premier commercial sockeye salmon fishery. By one preliminary assessment, the project has the potential to produce 53 billion pounds of copper, 50 million ounces of gold and 2.8 billion pounds of molybdenum over nearly eight decades while developing just over half the known resource.

While Heatwole said signs now point to Pebble going ahead with the project, he said "quite a bit of scrutiny and work" remains before any construction could begin, let alone operations. He estimates it will take about three years for the company to work its way through the federal permitting process.

Pebble anticipates needing hundreds of permits -- roughly 100 just for a road corridor -- to operate.

Rick Halford, a former state legislator and mine opponent, is worried the permitting process won't be sufficient for a project of this scale. When it comes to mines, he said the proposed Pebble project "overwhelms everything that's ever been proposed in Alaska, combined."

He also worries about the availability of objective science, calling Pebble's reports "contracted science based from the advocates."

"The state and the federal government have to have the resources to verify that this can be done safely," he said, "or it shouldn't be done."

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