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Large Mine Permitting in Alaska: An Overview

A company wishing to operate a hardrock mine in Alaska must first obtain various federal and state permits and approvals. The Alaska Department of Natural Resources (DNR), Division of Mining, Land & Water oversees the process, with the Large Mine Permitting Unit coordinating permitting activities.

Large Mine Permitting in Alaska: An Overview

The Permitting Process

The permits and approvals required to operate a hardrock mine in Alaska vary based on the mine location and design. However, there are some basic federal and state permits that are often needed.

Federal Permits

The two major permits can be required for large mines are a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) Permit and a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Section 404 Permit.

WTP discharge to RDC The NPDES permit is required for any mining operation that is going to discharge wastewater to a water of the United States. NDPES permits include effluent limits for the various pollutants in the wastewater, and those effluent limits must comply with Alaska’s water quality standards and protect the uses of the water-body.  NPDES permits also contain mandatory reporting and monitoring requirements. Exceedences of effluent limitations or failing to following reporting and monitoring requirements violate the permit and the Clean Water Act.

*Note-in 2008, the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) was granted permitting authority from the EPA for surface discharges of wastewater under the Clean Water Act. In October 2010, DEC will take over NDPES permitting authority for mines in Alaska.

Under Section 404 of the Clean Water Act, any activities involving the dredging or filling of lands classified as wetlands of the United States requires a permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. This applies to mining activities and mine infrastructure development projects such as road and pipeline construction. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers makes its decision whether to issue a permit based on a determination that the permit is in the public interest, and balances such criteria as:  the public and private needs, resources use conflicts, other available locations and methods to achieve the project, and the extent and permanence of the impact of the project on the uses of an area. During the Corps public interest review, concerned citizens and groups have the opportunity to review the proposed project and submit comments. The Corps also requires that a project avoid, minimize or compensate for the adverse impacts to wetlands.

In addition, the company must obtain various assurances from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) or the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS):  that the mine will not impact threatened or endangered species, bald eagles, essential fish habitat and that any impacts to migratory birds will be mitigated.

State of Alaska Permits

In addition to federal permits, there are various state permits and approvals that a mine must obtain prior to operating a mine. These include:  approval by DNR of the mine’s Plan of Operations; Monitoring Plans for water (both surface and groundwater), wildlife, and fisheries approved by DNR and the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC); securing or reserving water rights with DNR; Dam Safety Certification from DNR to operate a tailings impoundment and dam; transportation rights-of-ways from DNR and the Department of Transportation (DOT) for roads, transmission lines, pipelines, or other infrastructure that access the mine site; fish habitat and fish-way permits from the Department of Fish & Game (DF&G) if any activity obstructs the passage of fish or any alterations to a particular body of water; and Storm Water Pollution Prevention Plans, solid waste disposal, air quality permits, and drinking water supply approvals from the DEC.

Reclamation Plan and Bonding

Fort Knox tailings and dam

Alaska’s reclamation and bonding requirements are intended to mitigate the impacts from mining once mining activity has ceased. Under the regulations, the mine site must be returned to a “stable” condition. To ensure that the companies have the funds available to conduct the reclamation activities, DNR can require the company to post a bond or a letter of credit for the amount the agency determines is needed to reclaim the site and pay for any on-going solid waste or wastewater processing. While the amount may vary based on long-term obligations and is reviewed during environmental audits which take place every five years, the amount of the reclamation financial assurance is often insufficient to cover the actual costs of reclaiming a mine site.

 

last modified Apr 23, 2010 01:00 PM

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