Al Jazeera America

5 days in Alaska: Pebble Mine row revives classic split in Last Frontier

Proponents of the project hail much-needed jobs and prosperity, while critics fear devastation of rich salmon fisheries

This is the fourth in a five-part series, “Fed up in Alaska,” exploring local issues that voters will take to the polls this November. 

DILLINGHAM, Alaska — The company that aims to open a gold and copper mine, dubbed the Pebble Mine, in the Bristol Bay area in southwestern Alaska has high hopes for what the project would bring to the state and America as a whole.

“Right now, it’s an idea. An idea that could help power our nation’s green energy initiatives,” the Pebble Partnership states on its website.

Quite a few Alaskans, however, think it’s a bad idea — including the six Native Alaskan tribes that live downstream from the proposed mine. In 2010 the tribes went to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to ask it to use a section of the Clean Water Act to stop the mine from being built.

The battle over the Pebble Mine is raging before the developers have even applied for a license, and now it is one Alaskan voters will take to the polls in November. If approved, Ballot Measure No. 4 will allow the state legislature to prohibit mining in Bristol Bay if it determines that mining would harm wild salmon in the fishery reserve.

Proponents say there could be $500 billion worth of minerals in the ground, arguing that it is possible to protect the environment while tapping into the ground for jobs and prosperity. Those on the other side of the debate worry runoff from the mine would cause permanent damage to Bristol Bay, home to one of the richest and most productive salmon fisheries in the world, and destroy an industry that thousands of Alaskans depend on for their livelihood.

The debate offers a snapshot of the dual character of Alaska and Alaskans. When he was governor, Jay Hammond famously spoke of Alaska as a rich supplier of energy and resources and as the country’s national park, its pristine landscapes and ecosystems in need of preservation.

The ballot measure is just the latest turn in a long saga of lawsuits, complaints and other initiatives for and against the mine.

Exploration on the state-owned strip of land has taken place since the late 1980s. The debate over the mine began in earnest, however, when the new owner of mining rights, Northern Dynasty Minerals, discovered a rich concentration of minerals in an area called Pebble East in 2005.

Supporters of the ballot measure, who have organized as the group Bristol Bay Forever, argue that the proposed mine would endanger 10,000 jobs and the spawning grounds for a third of the world’s supply of sockeye salmon.

If built, the mine would cover an area as large as Manhattan and as deep as the Grand Canyon, according to the Environmental Protection Agency’s website.

In 2008 a ballot measure similar to the current one failed to pass, allowing exploration to continue.

The EPA is conducting an investigation whether it should impose restrictions to protect the waters in and around the Pebble deposit area. Those restrictions could slow or halt the Pebble Mine project.

This year the Alaskan government and the mine developers challenged the investigation in federal court, arguing that the EPA overstepped its authority by acting pre-emptively and displayed a bias for opponents of the mine. The lawsuit was tossed out, but developers promised to continue the legal battle even if the EPA manages to stop the project under provisions of the Clean Water Act.

The ballot measure would give the state legislature the final say, even if the EPA gives the Pebble Mine the green light.

But not everyone is pleased with the decision being up to voters.

“Making decisions on resource development projects via ballot initiatives is such a fatally flawed process of doing things,” said Deantha Crockett, director of the Alaska Miners Association. “Nothing is as simple as yes or no on resource development projects.”

Fisherman and tribal leader Thomas Tilden supports the EPA’s involvement in protecting the Bristol Bay.
Al Jazeera America

The fishing port of Dillingham lies 70 miles downstream from the potential mine site. Thomas Tilden is a fisherman, the chief of the Alaska Native Curyung Tribal Council and a longtime advocate for protecting Bristol Bay. He said he’s been fighting the Pebble Mine project for 10 years.

Although Alaskans are infamous for wanting to keep government out of their business, Tilden supported the EPA’s involvement and said federal intervention was necessary in this case.

“We need them to make sure we have clean water. We need to make sure we have clean air,” he said.

Proponents of the mine also have a lot at stake. The Pebble Mine would tap into the world’s largest deposit of copper and gold.

Crockett called the EPA’s intervention “horribly unfair” to Alaska and to one of the most economically depressed regions in the state, which could use the jobs the new mine would create.

“We are assuming this mine will harm the environment when we have no idea what it looks like,” Crockett said. “To stop it now is completely unfair to everyone in our nation.”

In 1972, Alaska, led by Hammond, created the Bristol Bay Fisheries Reserve, aimed at protecting the precarious environment and source of livelihoods for nearby Alaska Native communities in particular.

According to the developers’ website, the Pebble Mine would be in line with this mission by bringing jobs and infrastructure to southwestern Alaska while still being “in harmony with the environment.”

“It can be a hard line to walk for those that believe you can only have one or the other. We believe we can have both,” said Crockett.

In other words, proponents of the mine have no problem with salmon, and opponents have no problem with mining — in theory.

“There is nothing wrong with mining,” said Tilden. “I think one of the things that a lot of folks point out is that this mine is in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

To view the “Fed up in Alaska” series, tune in to “Al Jazeera America News” with John Seigenthaler this Mon. to Fri. at 8 p.m. Eastern time.

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