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Recent Pebble mine comments deserve scrutiny

Andy Josephson
Nondalton, Alaska, near the Pebble deposit. Eric Adams photo

Alaska has seen the development of successful mines at places like Fort Knox, Greens Creek, and Red Dog. Some mines produce positive benefits for both Alaska and the mining industry. Not all mines are the same, however. Recently, Northern Dynasty’s chief executive, Ron Thiessen, made the following comments about the Pebble Prospect that deserve serious scrutiny and challenge:

1.  “Pebble is Alaska’s.” “(Pebble) can and will be built.”

In a recent speech before the Resource Development Council and in comments to Alaska media, Mr. Thiessen repeatedly refers to the Pebble site as “Alaska’s.” Subject to state approval, however, the right to develop the mine claim belongs to Northern Dynasty -- and no one else. Make no mistake, under current law, almost all of the profits would belong to Northern Dynasty.

Next, Mr. Thiessen’s foreclosing any possibility that the mine won’t happen is hubris -- a type of corporate arrogance. While all advocates can commit acts of “puffing” (I confess to occasional lapses), Northern Dynasty’s rhetoric leaves me feeling, well, colonized. It is also inconsistent with its former partner, Anglo-American’s, promise that “(I)f the mine cannot be developed in a way that provides proper protections, (they) will not build it.” (Anchorage Daily News, Dec. 1, 2007.) Anglo’s withdrawal from the project speaks volumes.

2.  “Pebble is in an area specifically designated for mineral resource development.”

This is inaccurate. Litigation in 2009 brought by local stakeholders against the state of Alaska resulted in a revised Bristol Bay Area Plan which classifies or co-classifies land more accurately, consistent with facts and science. Portions of the Pebble deposit are now co-classified as mineral and habitat land, and portions of the Pebble area are classified as habitat only. This makes Northern Dynasty’s “specifically designated” argument, at best, out-of-date.

3.  “Pebble will enhance salmon habitat and productivity.”

Amazingly, Pebble has opined that it will create habitat “equal or even better in quality” than presently exists.

It seems we have a stark choice: We can accept the land as it was made by its Creator, or we can trust in a British Columbia company to somehow improve on the bounty that’s there -- an anadromous salmon fishery unparalleled in the world.

4.  “Only two of nine watersheds that comprise Bristol Bay’s fishery would be (impacted) by Pebble.”

Northern Dynasty fails to note that one of the two watersheds in question, the Kvichak, is the single largest producer of sockeye salmon on the planet. The other river system, the Nushagak, is the only waterway on Earth with returns of king salmon above their escapement goals. The mine sits at the headwaters of these rivers.

Northern Dynasty has downplayed the square mileage of its footprint and the potential -- in perpetuity -- that its mine could leach metals directly into salmon streams. It compared the likelihood of Pebble’s co-existence with commercial fisheries to that of the Gibraltar (copper) Mine near British Columbia’s Fraser River -- a river whose once enormous commercial fishery has experienced closures in nine of the last 13 years. It describes Southwest Alaska villages as “dying” and at risk of a “loss of their traditional culture,” yet one scholar has noted their “strong, salmon-based subsistence lifestyle” helps explain some of the lowest suicide rates in Alaska. And, for good measure, it has suggested that Outside interests are driving the anti-Pebble movement, a statement belied by the enormous coalition of local, disparate interests arrayed against the mine.

Generally, elected officials refrain from judging the merits of discrete, “hot button” projects like the Pebble deposit. But Pebble is the seminal fisheries dispute of a generation. Hiding from this debate with the common refrain “Let’s let the permit process play itself out” shouldn’t suffice, especially when permitting statutes and regulations aren’t what they once were -- a directive of governors spanning the last decade. If these iconic sport and commercial fisheries are not protected from this mine, is there a place of safe sanctuary anywhere?

As one wise Alaskan suggested, there may be a place for the Pebble Mine. Just not in Southwest Alaska. The time for political timidity on this mine has passed.

Andy Josephson was elected to the Alaska State House of Representatives in 2012 and represents residents in Midtown, the University area, and East Anchorage.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.