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Is Alaska prepared for a second mining boom?

Carey RestinoThe Arctic Sounder

Recently, I had a chance to talk to John Shively, CEO of the Pebble Partnership, and one thing he said stood out to me in particular. The Pebble Prospect, he said, is a multi-billion-dollar asset, and it will almost certainly be developed one way or another at some time. It may or may not be the Pebble Partnership who do it, but history shows that as long as there is such a high demand for gold, copper and molybdenum, the chances are someone will figure out a way to get the minerals out of the earth to satisfy that demand.

It's not really news. We know as a species we are particularly good at satisfying our needs. But as the EPA releases its watershed assessment for Bristol Bay, and the call to stop the Pebble Project reaches a deafening tone statewide, it seems that maybe people are missing the bigger picture.

Mining interest in Alaska is booming. This week, a map highlighting 75 proposed new mines in Alaska was highlighted by Alaska Dispatch. The map, a product of Ground Truth Trekking, was reportedly created to shed light on the scope of the mining activity in this state, which map creators Bretwood Higman and Erin McKittrick are calling the state's second gold rush.

Meanwhile, in Nome, the local paper is reporting that 500 tons of mining equipment is on its way to the community via barge thanks in part to higher gold prices as well as the popularity of the reality show, "Bering Sea Gold."

In 2011, The Alaska Miners Association reports mining companies paid some $148 million to the state in royalties, rents, fees and taxes, and $17.2 million to local governments -- the bulk of which went to the Northwest Arctic Borough where the Red Dog Mine is, and the Fairbanks North Star Borough where Fort Knox is located. But Alaska's tax regime for mining has been called one of the most favorable in the world. Companies pay the state 7 percent of net income exceeding $100,000, and efforts to institute a new rate of 11 percent for mines with net income exceeding $1 million have met with opposition.

The question Alaskans -- and our elected officials -- have to ask as we enter our "second gold rush" is whether it is worth it. People passionately opposed to the Pebble Mine are making a strong push to stop that project, but at the same time, dozens more mines are being considered in the same region. Will the same response be warranted for those? And is the state setting itself up to handle all this new mining activity in the best interests of its residents, and especially its residents' children, since they are likely the ones who will deal with the fallout if a mine causes environmental harm.

Alaska has always been a state built on its natural resources — from oil to salmon. Mining is no exception, but mineral prices are catapulting mining activity into a new realm. The trick here is going to be taking in the bigger picture -- beyond, perhaps, the proposed Pebble mine -- and making sure we are prepared to handle this boom.

Carey Restino is editor of The Bristol Bay Times, where this commentary first appeared. It is republished here with permission.

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