OPINION: Pebble Mine version 201 still a risk
October 6th | Carey Restino
I remember when the Northern Dynasty team from Canada first visited the Kenai Peninsula to talk about the mine they hoped to develop in the hills on the other side of the Cook Inlet. They presented their PowerPoint presentation to the Homer Chamber of Commerce in a second-story room overlooking the sparkling Kachemak Bay. While Homer is known as pretty liberal, there are also a lot of folks in town who agree with the general Alaska love affair with projects, the bigger the better. And the excitement in Homer was palpable. At the time, I wrote that it felt a bit like the gold rush fever. The city was thrust quickly into a contest with other communities on the Kenai Peninsula in an effort to impress these visiting Canadians with our dock facility, the only ice-free port capable of serving the shipping needs of this burgeoning development.
It took a season or so for the conversation to thicken, and people who have lived through big developments, like the pipeline, to weigh in on how this might change the town and the region. If hundreds or even thousands of workers flooded the town overnight, what would it do to our schools, our infrastructure and our property values. Would we be quickly priced out of the market? Would the values that built this small town survive? The debate increased as more and more people found out about the details of this proposed mine — so massive its 20-square-mile footprint would more than cover the entire area of Anchorage. It would be, word was, the largest gold, copper and molybdenum mine in North America. But the real sticking point for most in Alaska was the location. The mine would be located in the headwaters of the Kvichak and Nushagak Rivers, which feed Bristol Bay, the world's most valuable and productive wild salmon waters. And if there's one thing Alaskans love more than big projects, it's fishing. Thus began the public relations battle between the would-be mine proponents and those opposed to the idea for a host of reasons.
That was more than a decade ago, long before any real investors came to the table, long before the permitting battle began with the Environmental Protection Agency, or any court cases were logged. But even then, the scale of the mine seemed ridiculously large. It made the proposed mine both more enticing and more terrifying at the same time. Think of the damage it could cause. Think of the money that could be made. It was a scale beyond comprehension, really.
One person I interviewed back then had an interesting theory. Maybe this massive-scale proposal was just a gimmick, they theorized. Maybe the plan all along is to propose something so phenomenally ginormous that people will be largely united in their opposition. What if the mine continues along with that huge plan for a few years, working everyone into a frenzy of protest, and then backs off? Then, what if they come back with a more conservative proposal, one that looks like a compromise?
This week, a small-scale plan for the proposed Pebble Mine is being brought forward. It's coming after the anti-mine effort has all but claimed victory and shut down. For quite some time, now, it had looked like the Pebble Mine proposal had been beaten out of town with a fury of bad PR and falling gold prices that caused investors to flee the scene en mass. And now, when all is quiet, they are back with a modest plan being presented to arguably the most pro-development federal administration a developer could ever hope for.
We'll probably never know if the last decade of debate over Pebble was a massive gimmick, as the man I talked to back then proposed. I'm not much of a conspiracy-theory person, but I never forgot that conversation. The "what if" hung in the air all this time. And now, contrived or not, the very situation he predicted has come to light. Surely, there will be pressure for anti-Pebble sentiment to be reasonable, to consider the new project with fresh eyes, to compromise.
There's a problem with all that, however. Mines much smaller than the one likely to hit the streets this week have caused problems much larger than Alaska's commercial and sportfish salmon industries can survive. In fact, you have to search far and wide for a mine that has been an environmental success story, really, and there's virtually nothing built in a region like the headwaters of Bristol Bay.
The size may have changed, but the other details have not. If the mine goes forward, it's still putting an industry that has fed and supported families throughout Alaska for generations in danger for the short-term gain of a few. It's a shortsighted proposition, no matter how you shake it, and it's being pitched at a time when many in Alaska are starving for an economic rainbow. Hopefully, Alaskans will take a close look at this revamped prospect and put it to the 100-year test. Putting a resource like Alaska's salmon at risk, for generations to come, just so we can sleep a little easier now isn't a fair trade, no matter what scale it's on.