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Frank Murkowski misses mark on Pebble Mine comparisons

Mel Brown

Former Alaska Gov. Frank Murkowski unfortunately and inaccurately draws parallels between attempts to stop oil exploration in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska and the EPA's involvement in the Pebble Mine debate.

The analogy, in a Nov. 4 commentary, is inappropriate and deserves correction. 

Oil and gas development has been in the hearts and minds of Alaskans for a long period of time. We find ourselves highly dependent on oil for revenue to finance the state. We depend on natural gas for heat and electricity. The Pebble Project as-proposed bears no comparison for Alaskans with NPR-A. 

Gov. Murkowski’s comments about Pebble mine -- an effort to unearth what's believed to be a mother lode of gold and copper near the headwaters of Bristol Bay, among the world's most successful wild commercial salmon fisheries -- and EPA's involvement in that discussion, are wrong and ill-considered.

The Pebble debate is not about environmental interests battling an environmental threat. To the contrary, it is about local residents and stakeholders battling an economic and cultural threat. 

The simple fact of the matter is that the residents, tribes and Native organizations of Bristol Bay invited the EPA to Southwest Alaska and to impart scientific expertise into the highly politicized Pebble debate. EPA has been the only federal entity  to come to tribal groups and to visit Bristol Bay, Anchorage and Seattle to hear our concerns about the Pebble Limited Partnership's plans to develop a mega-sized, open-pit copper mine.

These hearings were monumental since everybody else turned a deaf ear, including the State of Alaska, to our concerns about Pebble. We are thankful we were given the opportunity to testify from our hearts about the most beautiful and rich renewable resources that need protection to conserve them as they've been for the last 10,000 years, in order to benefit future generations.

Red Dog Mine comparison misleading

Truth is, Pebble is perpetrating the true "bait and switch." Pebble has released several potential mining plans to its shareholders, state regulators and to the press in its applications for state water permits, to satisfy financial reporting requirements and to generate media. The size, type and location of the project as currently proposed is a totally outrageous in size, requiring a power plant big enough to electrify Anchorage, several roads and pipelines, massive earthen dams and billions of pounds of mining waste rock in a pristine wilderness.

Gov. Murkowski’s comparison of Pebble to the Red Dog Mine near Kiana is totally misleading. Unlike Pebble, Red Dog is not located on top of a world-class fishery that is the economic and subsistence mainstay of the region. Red Dog does not compromise one resource, economy and lifestyle for another. As proposed, Pebble will.

Nevertheless, in the public discourse about potential impacts from its operations, the Pebble Partnership continues to insist it does not yet have a mining plan and that its future mining operations will categorically not harm salmon or the other subsistence resources of the region.  Those assertions deny the simple truth that it already has released several mining scenarios as well as undisputed geologic, physical and chemical facts about the Pebble deposit. 

EPA popular in Bristol Bay?

Let’s return to the plainer facts. Regional surveys demonstrate that more than 80 percent of Bristol Bay residents oppose Pebble and support EPA intervention if necessary, under authority of the U.S. Clean Water Act, to protect Bristol Bay wild salmon habitat from the proposed Pebble mine. Even the communities closest to the Pebble deposit are largely opposed to its development.

Bristol Bay’s federally recognized tribes and Native organizations wrote the EPA in 2010 and asked it to intervene. These groups include Bristol Bay Native Association, a consortium of all 31 federally recognized Bristol Bay tribes; Nunamta Aulukestai, a nonprofit that promotes the mutual interests of multiple Bristol Bay village corporations and tribes with respect to their lands and natural resources; and Bristol Bay Native Corp., a regional ANC worth $2 billion and with more than 9,000 shareholders who share ancestral ties to the Bristol Bay region.  

A few highly vocal individuals financially supported by Pebble Partnership have publicly stated that Bristol Bay communities will disappear without the development of the mine. These exaggerations are designed to sew fear, mislead the public and mischaracterize the region’s near unanimous opposition to Pebble.

History has shown little precedent for the overwhelming consensus we have in Bristol Bay on this issue.

It is ironic that former Gov. Murkowski criticizes the people who support EPA action to protect Bristol Bay, for it was the Murkowski administration that in 2005 preemptively established a Bristol Bay Area Plan, which reclassified habitat and lands for mining and mineral development, using legally questionable tactics. Murkowski created “Bristol Bay Mining District” with extremely limited input from the people of Bristol Bay.

EPA has provided a much more democratic process, giving residents opportunity to weigh-in and influence decisions that affect every aspect of their lives. We, the residents of Bristol Bay and citizens of Alaska, are also citizens of the United States, and we will avail ourselves of all the benefits and rights that status has to offer to protect our home. 

Mel Brown is a commercial fisherman in Bristol Bay. He worked for BP for 30 years and appreciates them giving him the time every summer to go fish. Alaska Dispatch encourages a diversity of opinion and community perspectives. The opinions expressed herein are those of the contributor and are not necessarily endorsed or condoned by Alaska Dispatch. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.