Mining Jobs or Salmon in Alaska?
KDLG Reporters walk to an active exploratory drill rig. (Jason Sear, KDLG)
Discovery of what could be $500 billion worth of gold and minerals near Alaska’s richest productive salmon fishery has sparked an epic fight in Alaska. The richest man in Alaska, fishermen, powerful mine interests, and native corporations all have something to say about the future of the proposed Pebble Mine. But now the courts will decide. Public Radio station KDLG’s news director Mike Mason has been following this battle for a decade. He speaks with host Bruce Gellerman from Dillingham, Alaska.
GELLERMAN: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts - this is Living on Earth. I'm Bruce Gellerman. The name "Pebble Mine" might suggest something small. Fact is, if it was ever developed, Pebble Mine would be enormous.
The proposed gold and copper mine sits on the largest undeveloped deposit of its kind in the world. The site is 200 miles southwest of Anchorage, Alaska, near remote Bristol Bay, and the largest Sockeye salmon run in the world. And, there’s the problem. Recently, the people of the region, in a non-binding referendum, voted to prohibit Pebble Mine from going forward.
But it’s just the latest chapter in an ongoing saga that began many years ago. Mike Mason, news director of public radio station KDLG in Dillingham, Alaska has been following the story since 2001. Mike, welcome to Living on Earth.
MASON: Thank you so much!
GELLERMAN: Now, in my lead, I said that this is a remote place - what does it look like? How remote is it?
MASON: Oh, it’s just about as remote as you can possibly get. You cannot get there from here, other than by airplane. There are some small Alaskan native villages near the area, but very small populations, and a very economically distressed area. But someone went up there and apparently has found the Mother lode…
GELLERMAN: Boy, I was reading about this. This would be a very, very big mine. What is it, 50 million ounces of gold, 53 billion ounces of copper?
MASON: Yeah, it kind of depends on whose estimate you look at and who you believe, but estimates of 100-500 billion dollars - with a "B"- worth of mineral exploration up there. It’s going to be a massive endeavor. Perhaps the largest mine in North America. That is going to come with a lot of jobs. It’s going to come with a lot of infrastructure, perhaps, for the area up there.
GELLERMAN: I understand that they’ve got to build impounding dams to store the chemical waste and that these would be really gigundous. They're earthen dams. The largest is something like two and a half football fields high and nearly four and a half miles long.
MASON: Yeah, a few years ago, back in 2006, the people that are looking at developing this had to release some plans, basically, regarding water permits. And that is where we’ve gotten these pictures and these images of these great big huge massive earthen dams that would basically hold back the tailings. And though we don’t know exactly what it’s going to look like, that’s likely pretty close. They’re going to be massive constructions.
GELLERMAN: And they’re near these salmon and the lake that they spawn in, I guess?
MASON: Yeah. Bristol Bay is a flagship for wild salmon production across the globe. The Sockeye run here is the largest on earth, so there’s a lot of concern among the people that live out here that a development of the Pebble Mine could really, at some point, impact the fisheries out here that have been sustainable for now well over 125 years.
And then you’ve got all of the other resource organizations in the state of Alaska - the miner’s association, which are very strong, the oil and gas organizations - that are in favor of that kind of resource development and what it could mean for the area up there. It’s a big fight here in Alaska.
[ADVERTISEMENT: “I’m here at the Pebble deposit where scientists have spent years studying everything about the environment from wildlife and habitat to water and wetlands. Their work represents one of the most extensive scientific research programs ever conducted in Alaska. The goal? Design a world-class project that protects the fisheries and benefits Alaskans. Because we don’t have to choose between fishing and mining - in Alaska, we could have both. Pebble could be part of the solution.”]
MASON: And then on the other side, you have the people that are looking at protecting the commercial fisheries, the sport fisheries, the subsistence fisheries - kind of the way of life out here in Bristol Bay.
GELLERMAN: On the side of opponents includes a big backer - the richest man in Alaska.
MASON: Yeah, Bob Gillam. For years he was kind of this shadowy figure. The wealthiest man in Alaska, started an investment group that was based in Anchorage. Apparently he was a very good friend of the late Senator, Ted Stevens. And he has been a strong backer of the opponents of the proposed Pebble Mine. Bruce, here is a portion of the interview that I conducted with Bob Gillam:
GILLAM: So the political fireworks is already started. And it really shouldn’t be mining versus fishing - it should be the Pebble Mine in this place issue. It’s not about mining at all. Most people in Alaska support mining, as do I. But not this one in this place.
GELLERMAN: So this is a battle of titans. You’ve got these mining concerns and you’ve got this billionaire, and they’re really going head-to-head then.
MASON: Oh, there’s way more than that. There are the Alaskan native corporations, which are … some of them are in favor of this kind of resource development, some of them are adamantly opposed. So you’ve got these big monied native corporations on either side.
You’ve got the commercial fishing interest, which … the seafood processors, the trade organizations, the individual commercial fishermen, and you also have the sport fishermen which, traditionally in Alaska, there has been competition between those two interest groups. But in regards to Pebble, it looks like they have come together to oppose this.
GELLERMAN: Now, there was a public referendum there - the vote was, what? 280 to 246 in favor of banning large-scale extraction activities. So, at least on this vote, the people are opposed to it. But we should say that the state attorney general says it’s just a vote, it’s not enforceable as law.
MASON: Yeah, so you have the Lake and Peninsula Borough which is the area that is around the mine site, trying to regulate land that is owned by the state of Alaska. This site is state land, has always been open to mineral exploration and development. But if you look at the polling, it looks like in the region, 80 percent - somewhere around there - are opposed to the Pebble Mine outright. So this is likely going to be a very contentious issue, there's lots of legal ins-and-outs, and it’s definitely going to court next month.
GELLERMAN: Well, in some ways, this has actually gone to the court of public opinion. Several US and British jewelry companies including Tiffany’s and Zales have pledged not to buy gold from the mine, should that come to pass.
MASON: They’re not opposed to mining. And as you know, the jewelry companies, they’re not opposed to mining. The contention is this mine in this place because of the dangers that could be posed to the last great wild Sockeye run on earth and the subsistence of the lifestyle here in this relatively untouched area of the world called Bristol Bay.
But the people of the state of Alaska have yet to really weigh in on this. And that’s likely not going to happen because this is going to end up in the hands of the courts and regulators as opposed to the people getting to vote yes or no.
GELLERMAN: Boy, Mike, you’ve got an epic story on your hands.
MASON: Yeah, it can kind of take over your life in some respects. But as I try to tell people, this is going to be a very, very long process. We’re looking at likely seven to ten years before we even get to the point where they can begin operations - if we ever get to that point.
GELLERMAN: Mike Mason is news director of public radio station KDLG in Dillingham, Alaska. Mike, thanks again, very much, I really appreciate it.
MASON: Thank you so much. Bye now.
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