Where Water is Gold, Part Three

Where Water is Gold, Part Three

An overview of the issues

Part three of a four-part blog post entitled “Where Water is Gold: Bristol Bay and the Pebble Mine”

The Bristol Bay Native Corporation, the regional corporation formed under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act to serve the Native residents of the region, has adopted a proposal in opposition to the mine.  In addition, 81% of its shareholders are against development of the mine.  BBNC emphasizes “responsible development” as part of its mission, and is convinced that the Pebble Mine could not be developed responsibly, that is, in a way that does not harm other resources and users.  And BBNC is not alone – a 2009 survey showed that 71% of the area residents are opposed to developing the mine.  A separate recent poll revealed that 66% of Alaskans and 66% of Americans are against development of the mine.  Opposition to the mine is so strong, Anglo-American issued an investment advisory to its constituents, noting, “The Pebble project is opposed by a politically powerful coalition of diverse interests who have the support of a large segment of the Alaskan electorate.”

The Pebble Partnership steadfastly maintains that it can responsibly develop the mine, that it can produce its metals products without harming the salmon fishery.  Jason Brune, public affairs manager for Anglo-American (US), notes that Anglo-American’s specific record of responsible practices and recent improvements in mining technology show that Pebble can be developed responsibly.  Many question whether Pebble can responsibly develop the mine given that it has already been caught violating permit conditions at the exploration phase.  Hard rock mining by its very nature is a boom-and-bust industry, wreaking havoc on regional economies and leaving behind a scarred, tainted landscape.  The impact on water quality is typically much worse than that predicted by the mine developer.  But knowing about the history of mining and the nature of metal sulfide hard rock mining is not the way to understand why people are against the Pebble Mine.  You can only learn that from the people themselves.

Vic Fischer, one of only two surviving delegates to the Alaska Constitutional Convention, opposes the Pebble development because he believes it stands contrary to the dictates of the Alaska Constitution itself.  Noting he was “acutely aware of [his] responsibility to future generations with respect to Alaska’s resources,” the State’s current policy of allowing mineral development without question “is contrary to the framers’ intent” when they drafted Article VIII.

The most important thing to know about the Bristol Bay regional economy is that it is a mixed-cash economy.  There are approximately 7,500 people living in the Bristol Bay region, among whom 66% are Alaska Native.  Unlike what most people may be accustomed to, where you rely exclusively on a cash income in order to survive, most of the residents of Bristol Bay live what the State and Federal government refer to as a “subsistence” lifestyle.  However, actual residents of the area dislike the term as it focuses exclusively on obtaining food for consumption.  Rather, they see it as a way of life.  Residents spend their entire year heading out into the waters and lands of the Bristol Bay region, hunting, gathering and fishing to bring in food, to bring in materials for crafts for trade and sale, to provide materials for important cultural events like dances (costumes) and potlatches or other celebrations.  People in the region eat wild plants, berries, bird eggs, migratory birds, caribou, moose, bear, salmon, and a variety of resident fish.  Salmon make up the largest share of the food and account for over half of all harvest (on a basis of usable pounds). And this way of life goes far beyond what the land can provide.  It connects people through activities, lessons, stories, journeys, language with a land that has gone mostly undisturbed through time, providing a rich bounty.

Many who oppose the development of the Pebble Mine speak of how its development will impact this way of life.  Bella Hammond, widow of one of Alaska’s most revered governors, Jay Hammond, stresses the importance of fish as a renewable resource and that while the fish may come back decade after decade and provide a reliable food source and revenue, “we do not know how long mining will last.”  Violet Willson, a longtime resident of Naknek, has examined the historical impacts of large scale hard rock mines and is greatly concerned that the chemicals discharged into the soil and waters of the region will impact the subsistence fishing of her 22 grandchildren and 16 great-grandchildren, as well as generations to come.  Luki Akelkok, Sr. of Ekwok, who has hunted caribou, moose and ducks on the Nushagak watershed, has already noticed impacts to wildlife from the Pebble exploration and fears increased impacts if a mine is developed.  Such stories are virtually countless in a region where so many people rely so much on the land and waters for their way of life.

Commercial fishing, tourism and recreational fishing proponents in the region also vastly oppose the mine.  Commercial fishing is a principle engine of the regional economy, providing 75% of the seasonal jobs (commercial fishing is by its very nature a seasonal venture) and steady income to area residents, bringing in $234 million in revenue to the region.  Everett Thompson of the F/V Chulyen is one of many commercial fishing skippers who is steadfastly opposed to the mine, even though he was neutral about it earlier.  Additionally, another $100 million floods into the region through remote sport fishing lodges serving high-end clients with angling adventures involving world-class Rainbow Trout and a variety of salmon, wildlife viewing, and sport hunting.

Yes, as the polls tell, not everyone is against the mine.  One of the reasons why people in the region support it, and one of the things the Pebble Partnership touts about the mine development, is the potential for long-term, year-round jobs in the region.  Residents in the village of Iliamna typically favor the development, as Iliamna Natives Limited, the village Native corporation, has enjoyed lucrative contracts during the exploration phase of the mine for providing logistical support to the Pebble Partnership.  Owners of lodges and other businesses in the Iliamna area, who have provided many services over the years to the Pebble effort, also greatly support the project, seeing it is an opportunity for an economic boom in the region.

In addition to exploring the way of life enjoyed by residents of the Bristol Bay region and how they fear the development of the mine, my book will explore why they fear the development of the mine.  Are the fears about poor water quality and its adverse impacts on the relationship between the people and the land well-founded?  This lies at the heart of the controversy.  Salmon are highly susceptible to changes in their environment, especially acidification, and salmon are a key part of both the subsistence and commercial livelihood of the Bristol Bay region.  Yet, the very nature of metal sulfide hard rock mining guarantees that the water chemistry of the region will be altered in some way.  From the constant discharge downstream of treated tailings pond water to the likely seeping of acid rock drainage from the surface to ground water, to where it will likely mix with surface waters, there are plenty of opportunities for the water chemistry to be altered short of a catastrophic event like tailings dam failure, often cited as a concern in this actively seismic region.  Research conducted in the region during the exploration phase suggests that certain changes are already certainly underway.

Coming next: A project to tell the Bristol Bay story

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