Five questions about the proposed Pebble mine


Last week the non-profit Alaska Native Professional Association held a panel discussion focused on the proposed Pebble mine. Panelists include:

They answered the following questions, which had been formulated by the ANPA board. Panel moderator was Greg Razo, of Cook Inlet Region, Inc.

If the Pebble project does move forward, how will it affect people and the environment?

Shively: It will have a very positive affect on people. You can’t mine impacting the environment. The question is can you mitigate it and can you control what needs to be controlled. I think the answer is yes. I recognize the environmental concerns and the questions that have been raised, but I think we will be able to answer them.

Williams: With a project this size we always talk about environmental risk. You can’t change the type and size of the deposit. All the education we have about mining – and we’ve educated ourselves in the last ten years — is there are problems. The environmental risk for this project is huge.

Smith: We have a long and rich history of assessing our resources in Bristol Bay. Dozens of companies have come into the region to explore resources in Bristol Bay. In the 60s and 70s it was largely about oil and gas. We have supported We don’t want to compromise the renewable resource. So today the priority at BBNC is fish first policy and we view responsible development through that lens. We are not supporting a preemptive 404(c) when it comes to Pebble. We support the science piece of it and we support performance standards.

Crockett: A mine like Pebble has the opportunity to greatly affect in a positive way the people [of the region]. I don’t believe the project will be permitted – no matter who wants it or doesn’t want it – if it cannot be done if environmental standards cannot be met.

There’s concern that mining will negatively impact the Alaska fishing industry. Is this possible? Please explain why or why not.

Williams: In terms of Pebble, it is today affecting the fishing industry because of the uncertainly that this project brings to commercial fishery. We didn’t have oil come up to the shore of Bristol Bay during the Exxon Valdez spill, but the prices changed. And that affected hundreds of families in Bristol Bay. We know the risk when a project happens. The uncertainty of having a price impact because of dam leakage; we know what the result will be with a price impact.

Crockett: It won’t be allowed to. In Alaska, fish come first and if Pebble or any other project in the state cannot be done without hurting the fishery, it won’t be done.

Smith: BBNC did not come into our position on Pebble lightly. We studied it for a number of years. There is a tremendous renewable resource that comes back. There is a perceived impact. Can a mine this type and size really coexist with the type of renewable resource here? The decision we made was that — perhaps scientifically that is yet to be determined — but in terms of perception, can you have this type of mine and fish in the same area and have people still view fish as pristine and untouched? We’re going to go more toward the science piece, but it’s important to view the perception piece as well.

Shively: We’ve said all along we won’t build this mine unless we can coexist with the fish. I’m a little confused about BBNC’s stand. You say Pebble could impact the reputation of the fish, and yet you say you support other development in mining and oil and gas. I don’t understand why Pebble is any different. It is true that BBNC says they support mineral development and that they haven’t asked for a preemptive veto. But one of the things BBNC has asked EPA to do is to not allow any mine to go forward that requires what we call long-term monitoring of a tailings impoundment facility. That means that basically no mine can be built in that region. Long-term monitoring of a tailings impoundment facility is an environmental improvement. Mining companies used to be able to walk away from a tailings impoundment facility. I find it very confusing that we are being told that long-term monitoring is something that should not be allowed.

There’s been a lot of discussion that action should be taken to preemptively veto the Pebble project. Is this a good or bad thing and why?

Crockett: It’s absolutely an awful thing. The permitting process we have is superb. To get to the very end of the process with a good project, that a company has invested millions and millions of dollars in, has a work force in place, has infrastructure to proceed with the project – to have it ultimately shut down even though everything was done correctly sends a horrible message. If I were a mining company looking to invest in America, it would be a red flag for me. The fact that you can do everything right and still not get to the end goal is absolutely awful for us.

Smith: I addressed the preemptive piece and I hear what John is saying. I don’t think in this case that our positions are in conflict; in fact they dovetail nicely. I emphasize that we have many years behind us of assessing our subsurface resources and we continue to do so. In this case, we haven’t asked for anything more than performance standards. So if a mining company can meet these standards within the area and protect the renewable resource we would support them. I admit these standards are extremely high. But we don’t want to have anything less, given the renewable resources that are there.

Shively: Obviously our feeling is that for EPA to come in and stop our project before it even goes into the permitting process would make a shambles of the federal permitting process. The federal permitting process is expensive, it will take three to five years, it’s in cooperation with a whole bunch of state standards that we have to meet. People who take that position that it should be shut down before we even have a plan for people to look at is just wrong.

Williams: I happen to belong to a tribe that actually asked EPA to come in and they asked for the 404(c) process to stop large-scale mining in Bristol Bay. Their decision was based on their study and looking at the impact that mining would have in Bristol Bay. EPA came out with the Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment – putting the science into one document about Pebble and about large-scale mining in Bristol Bay. It’s not just Pebble. There are other claims out there. We want some assurances that the environmental risks that come with large-scale mining will not happen in Bristol Bay. If that is a preemptive veto, which my tribe requested, I stand by them in their decision to make that. That’s their only opportunity. Bristol Bay is one place where we can’t have that risk and we can’t just experiment. You can talk about mitigation, but problems will happen with this mine.

Both positive and negative, what are the repercussions of Anglo American pulling out of the Pebble project?

Smith: There are benefits and risks. We’ve experienced those over the last 40 years. We’ve invited industry into our region for a specific purpose: to better understand what resource we have in the region and to leverage the dollars they use to assess the resource. Early on we supported the Pebble Limited Partnership in assessing this resource. We continue to support them when it comes to the training and education of shareholders and the jobs they’ve held and the benefits of these small businesses in these local communities. BBNC does continue to have meetings and phone calls over the recent job losses. We have a mechanism in place for shareholders and locals to come and get jobs at BBNC. We’ll also continue to look at investing back in the region. The board has allotted $35 million to invest back in the region.

Crockett: In the short term, in terms of layoffs, it’s a negative repercussion. It’s always disappointing to see any major investor to pull out of Alaska. But Anglo is not the only mining company in the world. Pebble is an amazing deposit. It is very attractive based on the resource that is there. There will be other interested partners.

Williams: I was shocked the day Anglo made its decision. To us, Anglo pulling away meant capital went away and yes there are job losses in Bristol Bay. I do feel for the families who have lost their jobs. I’ve been working with John and emailing him about those job losses and asking BBNA, another regional organization, to help people impacted go find jobs. For us, we want people to work, so we need to find them jobs.

Shively: I can’t find a lot of positive. BBNC’s statement is that Anglo leaving is positive. We appreciate the concern that Kim has shown for people being laid off, but to be perfectly frank, the jobs don’t exist. BBNC committed $35 million of investment into the region. But that’s not much more than we’ve been spending every year in the region. And way less than the economic impact. Anglo’s leaving is a negative for our project, but it doesn’t kill the project. It’s a great resource. Anglo’s invested half a billion dollars to bring the project along from a conceptual model to being very close to permitting. I still think it’s a fantastic project and believe there will be other people that will look at it and we will continue to go forward.

The life of the proposed Pebble mine has been a topic of concern. What are the potential implications – environmentally, socially and economically – of a mine the size of Pebble?

Shively: What we know about the prospect is that it will operate for somewhere between 70 and 100 years. We will permit an 18 to 20 year mine as the first phase. That limits risk to the region so we can see how we operate. Over the long term, we provide opportunities for several generations of people. If does give the region an opportunity to build other infrastructure – transportation, energy. We’ve said we would sell power at cost to people in the region. Putting in infrastructure will help bring cheaper goods into villages. This winter someone sent me a picture of a gallon of orange juice in Dillingham for $24. We can change the economy out there and in the long run have a very positive impact.

Smith: What we know exists within Bristol Bay as the economic engine is salmon and its return. Some say that number is between $300-500 million annually. That engine continues to support the reason. Outside of that is the subsistence use. We will continue to support projects that come in that can meet the standards. Anything that has too much risk – that has to do with Pebble – it has passed that risk threshold. The $35 million will be ongoing. We do recognize there are challenges within southwest Alaska and that there is outmigration. We want to mitigate that as a for-profit organization, partnering with non-profits and organizations to the extent we can, and bringing benefit back to the region.

Crockett: I would caution against negatively looking at a project that has a finite resource. Just because we know we can’t mine it for the rest of humankind doesn’t mean we shouldn’t pursue it. The investment is brought in and infrastructure is brought in by resource development. It’s what built this state. In Juneau right now has power that was brought in 100 years ago by the mining industry. They had an avalanche that took out their power transmission lines and got a taste of what it was like to pay for diesel. They were quite happy when power was reinstated. Things like that are important to focus on. That initial investment will last that region and community for years to come.

Williams: There are other mining claims our there that could be developed. We look at it in terms of cumulative impact. It’s the exact same project on top of one another, and what does that do to fishing? That’s the conversation to have. It’s not just about Pebble. It’s about what happens when Pebble comes in, what about these other claims that that will impact and provide that environmental risk to us in the long run. I don’t want to be the generation that did not do enough to ask the questions about the project. My great grandchildren will still have fish in their smokehouses, they will still put fish in their freezers, and they will still share with everybody culturally. Having this risk can damage that into the future. Seven generations out, I don’t want to be the one they’re looking at saying, “You didn’t do enough.”