Is the battle over?
Conservationists of all stripes—recreationalists, commercial and sport fishers, hunters and subsistence users—pulled the cork on the champagne when mining conglomerate Anglo-American backed out of the Pebble Partnership. With Anglo American gone, so too was Northern Dynasty’s ability to develop a mine at the headwaters of Bristol Bay. The news caused many to even proclaim the battle for Pebble over.
But, Dan Oberlatz, owner of Alaska Alpine Adventures, a rafting and wilderness outfitter who runs trips throughout the Bristol Bay basin, said it’s nowhere near time to celebrate.
“Not even close,” he said. “In fact, the only thing slowing them down at the moment is the lack of an investor, which they are actively seeking and very likely to find.”
There’s also been a lot of push-back since the mining giant left, he points out. Republican senators Cathy Giessel, John Coghill, Kevin Meyer, Charlie Huggins and Republican representatives Mike Chenault, Eric Feige, Dan Saddler and Craig Johnson signed a letter promising continued support of the project and sent it to Northern Dynasty. They declared Alaska open for business and encouraged the company to continue their pursuit of the Pebble Project.
Oberlatz says he respectfully disagrees with them.
“Mining, as important as it is, is part of a boom and bust cycle, whereas fishing and tourism are sustainable in the long-term,” he said. Tourism and wildlife industries are second only to commercial fishing in economic activity in the region, he added.
, he said, contributes more than $300 million a year directly and $1.5 billion, indirectly, and accounts for some 10,000 jobs.
“And tourism and wildlife contributes over $100 million and sport fishing over $60 million directly into the local economy,” he said, indicating huge potential for growth – growth that may not happen in the face of a giant mine.
“If you alter the perception of the area, from a place of magnificence and grandeur, where a truly unique wilderness is replaced by a mining district … then it affects how people see not only the region but the whole state,” he said. “It changes who and what we are. And then why would people even come?”
John Hohl, with Alaska Fly Anglers, is less diplomatic.
“Frankly, I find it appalling that our elected officials would risk current jobs, risk the livelihoods of Alaskans and side with foreign companies rather than with us,” he said, referring to their letter of support.
He also takes exception to politicians like Sen. Giessel, who in a recent editorial questioned the validity of the EPA’s assessment of mining in Bristol Bay and the effect it will have on its fisheries.
“Its conclusions are based on good science, on hundreds of peer-reviewed reports,” he said. “It draws on Northern Dynasty’s own plans. Nobody likes the federal government coming in, but in this case it’s warranted.”
“There’s never been a mine that in the end has not been permitted by the state, and the EPA is, in this case, just a part of the process.”
He added that the EPA is weighing in because business owners and the Alaska Native community requested their involvement.
“Bristol Bay Native Corporation shareholders have overwhelmingly voiced their opposition to the mine,” he said. “It’s a loud voice and one that should be respected.”
But Pebble Partnership’s John Shively, in an Aug. 1, 2013, editorial for Fox News, blasted the report as hurried and substandard, and said that it assumes his company would be using century-old technology and environmental practices. He also stated that the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) would be circumvented, if at the behest of environmentalists the EPA were to intervene before formal permits were applied for, which it now looks like they are going to do.
“Environmental groups are running the campaign to subvert and evade NEPA,” he said. He also touted the minerals, specifically the copper that the mine would provide, as well as a large number of jobs for up to three decades or more, claiming that, “Southwestern Alaska can have both fishing jobs and mining jobs.”
Hohl, however, said he believes the EPA exercised due diligence in its report, comparing similar mines around the world. He cites statistics on the number of mines currently considered for inclusion as Superfund sites, which is a national effort to clean up the worst uncontrolled and abandoned hazardous-waste sites around the country.
There were 156 at last count that could be included in the Superfund, and those are just mines on federal land. They are sites that have cost taxpayers more than $2.5 billion in attempts to reclaim or monitor.
“History shows it time and again,” he said. “These companies either create subsidiaries, or when things start to slow down they sell out, and declare bankruptcy and we are left holding the bag.”
The Pegasus Gold bankruptcy in 1997, for instance, left taxpayers liable for cleanup costs at a number of mines throughout the western states. It’s happened here as well, only on a much smaller scale, when the Illinois Creek Mine, not far from Galena, went bankrupt. Fortunately, in this case the state was able to hire a reclamation company to mine the site until it had enough money for cleanup and monitoring, saving the taxpayers a hefty bill.
“Still,” asked Hohl, “is that what we want for Alaska?”
In the end, can a mining district and a world-class fishery cohabitate? Hohl says he just doesn’t see how it’s possible.
“Pebble will be enormous, according to early plans 10 times the size of all other mines in Alaska combined, and only one of many mines proposed,” he said. “I have no doubt engineers have the best intentions. It’s human nature to think you will succeed, otherwise they wouldn’t even try. I’m sure, with advances in technology, they think that this time they will get it right. But if you could point out one time, just one, especially in a place as wet and as rich in wild salmon as Bristol Bay, where they had then maybe, just maybe, I’d reconsider my position.”
On Feb. 28, 2014, the EPA announced that it would start a Clean Water Act 404c process in Bristol Bay, targeted at protecting the waters and wetlands near and within the Pebble deposit. The first step involves a dialogue with Northern Dynasty, the Army Corps of Engineers and the State of Alaska. The next step will be a “proposed determination,” which could include possible prohibitions or restrictions on mining, and which will be followed by a public comment period and possible hearings.
During that time no 404 permit can be given and no mining is allowed. After that there will be a review process and second consultation with the mine owners and the state. The entire process could take up to a year to complete and result in a variety of EPA actions, including no action at all. Meanwhile
, Northern Dynasty recently hired a high-profile U.S. regulatory lawyer and former chief of staff in the Interior Department as its new chief executive officer.
The battle to halt the Pebble Mine is not over. The EPA may have struck a blow to the mine developers, but they are hardly down for the count. In fact, with the possibility of the state and Northern Dynasty taking action against the federal government and the EPA, it may just be heating up. ◆