OPINION: Defending a battle for truth in Pebble decision
As a retired general, I am somewhat amused when non-military pundits insist on using the vocabulary of the military art such as "battle," "opponent," and "defending." My amusement ends when I recognize the repetition of a flaw historically seen in many of our military leaders as they prepare for the last war. The error is that they rely on old tactics and assumptions without acknowledging how the terrain has changed around them.
I recently took on the Pebble challenge to contest the battlefield of misinformation and I will begin with the exaggeration that has spawned from the 2014 initiative called Bristol Bay Forever. It has been painted as a decision about Pebble, yet many forget that the word Pebble was not mentioned in the initiative, nor was there any organized opposition to the initiative.
The measure that was passed is what is known as a legislative veto, and has repeatedly been found unconstitutional by Alaska's courts that recognize its challenge to the separation of powers doctrine that guides the checks and balances that protect our system of government. It will be challenged in court and it will be struck down as unconstitutional.
Reciting the purposefully misleading "Pebble will be built at the headwaters of the Bristol Bay watershed" mantra is rhetoric meant to frighten. With eight massive river systems containing thousands of tributaries and contributing streams (The Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment described 52,277 stream and river reaches in the Nushagak and Kvichak River watersheds), Pebble sits near the upper reaches of three tributaries — the North and South Fork of the Koktuli River and Upper Talarik Creek.
Another favorite is the "science is settled" when it comes to Pebble, yet the company has not initiated the permitting and review process under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). It seems that some want to place all of their eggs in the Obama EPA efforts that the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform concluded "EPA employees had inappropriate contact with outside groups and failed to conduct an impartial, fact-based review." (emphasis added) I prefer to place my faith in the objective, science-based NEPA process that even the Natural Resources Defense Council calls the "Magna Carta" of U.S. environmental law.
We have made a sincere and conscientious effort to bring forward a smaller plan for a mine at Pebble in response to stakeholder concerns. We have taken important steps to make sure we can answer the "what's in it for me" questions we get from people further away from the proposed development. We have taken on board years of environmental studies that have focused on the fish and water resources around Pebble to ensure our plan can meet our commitment to co-exist with the fishery.
One matter I do agree with, is that salmon are important to Alaska and to residents around Bristol Bay. They are important commercially and culturally. When we talk about the salmon economy, we must also do so with all information on the table. The University of Alaska's Institute of Social and Economic Research noted last year that our commercial fishing industry costs more to administer than it brings in to the state. And when we discuss the jobs and revenue it creates, we need to be aware that Bristol Bay commercial drift permits continue to be fished by a clear majority of non-residents, while most jobs in seafood processing are not done by Alaskans. I don't raise these to poke this industry in the eye, but I will raise them to add context when they are hurled upon us to see what will stick. As we discuss the economy in Southwest Alaska, we should be talking about ways to bring those permits and jobs back to the region so the benefits can be more widely felt.
Development at Pebble could bring hundreds of millions of dollars into Alaska's economy, contribute tens of millions in revenue to the state and local governments, and provide much-needed year-round jobs in an industry where the average salary tops $100,000 per year. This is of particular interest to the communities closest to our project, where jobs are scarce and costs of living remain high.
Our fundamental premise is that our project must not harm the important salmon fishery in Bristol Bay. Our science and technical studies are guiding our decisions to meet this principle. While we believe we can develop and operate a mine that does this, the burden is on us to prove we can. If we can, we should be allowed to proceed. Remember, the Pebble mineral resource is on State of Alaska land, and like our North Slope, its mineral wealth belongs to the people of Alaska. One concluding truth is that before the arm chair generals call Pebble defeated, it should be thoroughly vetted.
Gen. Mark Hamilton is with EVP External Relations, Pebble Limited Partnership.