Proposed Pebble gives mining industry a black eye

Voices of the State

Posted: Monday, January 29, 2007

I have the highest regard for former Speaker of the House Gail Phillips and understand her desire to stand up for Pebble Mine, as she is personally deeply rooted in Alaska’s rich mining history.

Reasonable people can disagree, but beyond that, my friend Gail is mistaken on a number of points in her commentary for the Peninsula Clarion (Jan. 9).

Renewable Resources Coalition is no “shadow environmental group.” RRC is composed of over 200 Alaska businesses and individuals who are by-and-large conservative, 2nd Amendment supporting, pro-development Republicans and well respected Alaska Native and fishing industry leaders. RRC has the greatest respect for the role mining plays in Alaska.

However, the proposed Pebble Mine is a unique issue that pits industry versus industry and puts at risk over 6,300 permanent salmon related jobs. It also puts at risk Alaska’s very reputation for clean water and fresh wild salmon. No other mine does this.

Gail purports that RRC is opposing Pebble Mine before permits are even applied for. The fact is, Northern Dynasty, the Canadian mining company that is seeking to develop Pebble, has submitted over 1,900 pages of mine plans and permit applications that very clearly show what Pebble would impose on the headwaters of the two largest salmon spawning drainages in the world. Indeed, we know more about Pebble Mine than we do about a gas line plan, or even development in ANWR.

Northern Dynasty’s applications require 100 percent of the water of the Upper Talarik Creek and South Fork Koktuli headwaters and 100 percent of the ground waters that feed them. They have detailed plans for construction of five gigantic earthen dams — two of them the largest on the planet — to hold mining waste in a vast sludge lake towering 200 feet higher than the Seattle Space Needle.

This waste impoundment, and the proposed open pit mine, would sit right on top of these two drainages. If even the slightest accident were to occur, the damage would generate headlines around the world. One only needs to remember how the mere fear of mad cow disease caused Japan to stop all imports of American beef. Picture how this would impact Alaska’s wild salmon fisheries.

Northern Dynasty’s own annual report to shareholders states that if there were a catastrophe, it could mean a full loss of shareholders’ equity, and that as a Canadian company it would have limited environmental liability. Guess who would be left to suffer the consequences and costs, as has happened again and again in the Lower 48? We the people.

On the most personal level, there is a term in the mining industry called “social License.” It means the need to have the acceptance of a mine proposal by the people most directly affected.

In the case of Pebble, the people of the region have seen the plans that Northern Dynasty has put forward and they have spoken loudly in opposition to Pebble Mine. In fact, 75 percent of local residents strongly opposed the mine in a recent Hellenthal survey.

The mining industry would be wise to consider themselves as a bushel of crisp apples with one very rotten apple in the bunch; an apple that should be plucked out to protect the rest. Pebble has the potential to create a black eye for the entire industry, leading to bans on the use of dangerous chemicals and increased taxes. Most Alaskans likely are unaware that the mining industry pays just 0.7 percent of market value in taxes.

And then, of course, there’s the little issue of cyanide — the poison used in death row executions, which kills absolutely every living thing, as it did in Montana until banned by voters. Just call some friend in Butte and ask them what absolute destruction looks like.

Mining in Alaska faces some exciting opportunities in the coming years. But Pebble Mine poses as much a risk to the mining industry as it does to fishing and tourism. That is as clear as the waters that presently feed Bristol Bay.

Arthur Hackney is a Republican political consultants and a founding director of the Renewable Resources Coalition.

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