Come 2007, the earth will move at Northern Dynasty Minerals' Pebble mine site 17 miles northwest of Iliamna if company plans proceed apace, and life may never be quite the same for the quiet rural region of southwest Alaska.
The Canadian mining company and its Anchorage subsidiary, Northern Dynasty Mines Inc., have pinned their financial future on successfully extracting tons of gold, copper, silver and molybdenum believed buried in an ancient volcanic caldera known as the Pebble porphyry.
Northern Dynasty has been drilling and analyzing core samples, working with state and federal officials while preparing applications for the necessary permits and conducting a major public relations campaign, promising to create jobs, boost state and local economies, while protecting the salmon- and wildlife-rich Bristol Bay watershed.
But promises of employment, invigorated economies and assurances all would be done to protect the environment have not done much to ease growing concern about what a 2-square-mile hole in the ground and a tailings containment area covering another 14.5 square miles might do to the region's subsistence lifestyle, commercial and sport fishing industry, or its attractiveness to tourists.
Joint resolutions opposing development of the Pebble porphyry mining district have been passed by New Koliganek Village Council and Koliganek Natives Ltd.; the Nondalton Tribal Council and city of Nondalton; the city of New Stuyahok, New Stuyahok Traditional Council and Stuyahok Ltd.; and the city of Ekwok, Ekwok Village Council and Ekwok Natives Ltd.
All cited the strong probability of detrimental impact to the environment on which the lifestyles and livelihoods of so many depend.
"My personal feeling is that we are not so much against the mine as against its location, due to the fact it is near tributaries flowing from both sides of the mountain," said Nondalton Tribal Council President Jack Hobson Sr. in an interview Thursday.
He's heard no guarantees from NDM that waterways vital to the support of "the biggest sockeye spawning grounds in the world" would never by contaminated.
"I hope the state, or whoever, takes that land and puts it off limits to any kind of mining development," Hobson said.
Also opposing the mine is the Alaska Wilderness Recreation and Tourism Association (AWRTA), which represents more than 300 nature-based tourism businesses, individuals and organizations in Alaska. In a statement posted on its Web site, the association said the mine "would threaten the region's renewable natural resources, undermine Alaska's nature-based tourism industry and return very little to the state of Alaska."
What the mine all Alaska mines return or will return to the state in the way of tax revenues currently is under review by the Alaska Legislature.
Not everyone is opposed to the mine project. The Alaska Power Association came out in support late last year. The nonprofit company Alaska Village Initiatives did likewise, as did the Lake and Peninsula Borough and the Southwest Alaska Municipal Conference.
The King Salmon Tribe and South Naknek Village Council asked NDM to "enter a dialogue" about safety.
Pro or con, virtually everyone has questions and concerns about the project.
The Bristol Bay Natives Association site (www.bbna.com) includes a list of 180 questions posed by residents and community representatives demanding answers from Northern Dynasty and state resource officials.
Those questions covered a host of concerns about tailings disposal, contamination from mine water, human health and the threat to drinking water, environmental health and a spectrum of possible socioeconomic impacts.
For instance, citizens asked how acidic runoff from tailings would be contained. One questioner asked why the south tributary of the Koktuli River was chosen for tailings disposal. Others wanted a complete list of potential contaminant sources.
NDM's Environmental Project Manager Ella Ede said the general concept would be to build an embankment surrounding the tailings area similar to that at the Fort Knox Mine near Fairbanks.
"It will be engineered to contain tailings and water," she said.
The company is considering plans to cover part of Frying Pan Lake and a portion of the river's south tributary, Ede acknowledged.
"Frankly, we had nowhere else to go," she said. "We made a commitment to stay out of the Upper Talarik Creek because it is sensitive fish habitat."
Just what those tailings might contain won't be known until the results to chemical testing is complete, she said.
As important as answers would be on what threats are possible and how Northern Dynasty would prevent or mitigate them, there may be even more interest in what the company would do in the event waterways were polluted, fish and wildlife killed and subsistence lifestyles disrupted.
But Ede said it was premature to attempt to answer those questions. They will be answered, however, in connection to state and federal permits, which likely would require bonding against damages and land reclamation and mine closure plans.
Northern Dynasty has acknowledged publicly that there are environmental risks, for instance, telling investors in its 2003 annual report (released June 30, 2004) that "unexpected environmental damage from spills, accidents and severe acts of nature such as earthquakes are risks which may not be fully insurable and if catastrophic could mean the total loss of shareholders' equity."
Further, that same document noted that company managers might not be subject to the U.S. legal process should something go wrong.
Patty McGrath, mining coordinator for the Environmental Protection Agency's Region 10, said EPA would look into reviewing Northern Dynasty plans and make recommendations for mitigation measures.
Asked if NDM would guarantee no pollution would occur, Ede said she didn't think any mine operator could do that.
"Honestly, I don't know if any mine has worked perfectly," she said. "There are mines that are run responsibly" even though they have experienced problems, she said, pointing to the Fort Knox Mine as an example.
Brian Kraft, owner of a lodge on the Kvichak River, is president of the Bristol Bay Alliance, which is raising issues about the mine in an effort to get those issues discussed.
Kraft said the Pebble project would be built in the heart of "one of the most sensitive areas in the world." The mining industry has yet to prove it can handle mines of this size anywhere without environmental impact, Kraft said.
"This is the wrong place for a project like this," he said.
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