There are public relations challenges, and then there is the Pebble mine.
It is nearly impossible to watch television or travel around Alaska without seeing an anti-Pebble mine message. From commercials to "no Pebble mine" stickers affixed to car bumpers or along Anchorage trailheads, the Pebble Partnership faces highly motivated opposition to a project that has yet to put forward a final development plan or initiate the permitting process.
The vehement opposition is easy to understand, given the proximity of the vast deposit of copper, gold and molybdenum to the Bristol Bay watershed. Bristol Bay is home to the world's largest sockeye salmon run and a bountiful source of subsistence for Alaska Natives, commercial fishermen and all forms of Alaska wildlife.
U.S. Interior Department Secretary Ken Salazar has called the area a "national treasure" when declaring it off-limits for oil and gas drilling.
In a state whose psyche is scarred by the 1989 disaster of Exxon Valdez oil spill and the destruction on Prince William Sound, any project that even hints at tampering with such an everlasting source of pride like Bristol Bay will face a fierce fight.
"They should have passion about it," said Pebble spokesman Mike Heatwole. "Anytime you're proposing a project -- whether it's a road through a neighborhood here in Anchorage or a new airport or whatever it may be -- change brings questions. People need to have questions. When they don't have all the information, people will move to fear in a way."
Heatwole became Pebble's vice president of public affairs during the heat of the Prop 4 battle in August 2008. Prop 4, a voter-initiated measure imposing strict water standards and targeted to stop Pebble development, was defeated on concerns it would have essentially shut down mining across the state.
Renewable Resources Coalition Executive Director Anders Gustafson said another voter initiative is "an option on the table" for the 2012 elections, but nothing formal has been decided. He said any new initiative will be carefully crafted to pass voter and legal muster after lessons learned from 2008.
"We're still looking for something to create a permanent protection for Bristol Bay," he said. "You always have to recognize what kind of dollar amounts we are up against. The proponents of mining in the Bristol Bay region have incredibly deep pockets. Alaskans deserve a well-vetted out idea."
Gustafson was not optimistic about a legislative solution to protect Bristol Bay, noting the recently adjourned session produced no solutions.
"Another year with nothing moving forward," he said. "This is how initiatives are spawned. This is why people get organized."
The aftermath of the 2008 initiative left both sides pointing accusatory fingers for election finance violations after each side poured millions of dollars into their campaign efforts.
"Any time people want to try to take out Pebble or do something that would just target us, it has farther-reaching implications," Heatwole said. "Folks wanted (Prop 4) to be just about Pebble, but there were much larger stakes for the mining industry."
Undeterred, opponents of Pebble who represent an array of subsistence, sport and commercial fishermen, environmental groups and Native populations, have continued a campaign of 30-second TV and radio spots and taken their complaints to Anchorage Superior Court.
In turn, the Pebble Partnership, a 50-50 joint venture between Vancouver-based Northern Dynasty and London-based Anglo American, has largely kept its media powder dry despite ample resources to match its opponents' ad buys.
Heatwole prefers community outreach presentations followed by question-and-answer sessions, and what he calls "hallway conversations," one-on-one talks with concerned Alaskans.
"The public awareness is very high. It's a blessing and a curse in a way," he said. "A lot of people have an opinion about you, but where did they find that information? Getting to the Q&A is best part of dialogue. You can draw out what is really on their minds."
Ron McGee, a University of Alaska Anchorage associate professor whose discipline is strategic communications, said there is pressure for Pebble to execute its message properly.
"In PR, we attempt to identify and communicate with publics who have a specific interest in a project," McGee said. "The thing that makes Pebble so challenging is that there are so many publics with varying concerns and levels of interest that impact public opinion. Certainly people who live in nearby villages are an important public, but some of them are very favorable toward the project and others are opposed. You must vary your message each time you talk to a different group."
Heatwole said one example of how community outreach changed Pebble's plans was during meetings in the Pedro Bay area when citizens expressed concerns about the necessary road corridor from Cook Inlet to the mine and the truck traffic transporting ore concentrate.
"So instead of trucking concentrate from the mine site to the port site, we made the decision to transport it with a slurry pipeline," Heatwole said. "That came out of conversations with folks in the region. That's why you engage in community outreach."
Outreach can only go so far, though, when it comes to the intractable nature of this battle. Although pure public opinion is not a determinative factor in the permitting process, both sides are investing heavily in making their cases.
With $400 billon or more worth of copper, gold and molybdenum estimated to lie within the claim situated on state land designated for mining, Pebble Partnership intends to press forward; its opponents, frustrated by a permitting process they say is incomplete and designed to eventually say "yes" to Pebble, will use every tool at their disposal whether in court or at the ballot box to try to stop it.
Heatwole's ultimate job is not just to just sell the mine by dubbing it the Pebble "opportunity," but to also counter what the partnership considers misinformation. Two bones he has to pick with opponents came quickly to the fore.
"One is that environmental disaster is 100 percent certain," he said. "That is just nonsense. Look at the track record of the operating hard rock mines in the state. The other is that we'll be the world's largest open pit. You can't roll out and say that until a project is on the table. Until we do, that is speculative at best."
Organizations such as Trout Unlimited and Anchorage-based Renewable Resources Coalition counter that it wouldn't take a large mishap to impact salmon. They cite such concerns as acid rock drainage caused by rain and snow runoff, leaching and spilled chemicals.
An increase in copper above natural stream levels of just 2 to 8 parts per billion could impact salmons' ability to return to spawning grounds.
Establishing that a final plan is not yet on the table is another constant of Heatwole's presentation. When criticizing the size and scope of the mine, opponents often point to a 2006 development plan put forth by the partnership to hold eventual claims for water rights should the project be approved.
Heatwole said the final plan will incorporate the duration of the mine and the daily rate of mining, which will dictate the size of any surface disturbance and the size of storage ponds to hold waste materials known as "tailings" behind huge earth-rolled dams.
"Until we have a plan, saying anything with certainty is pushing it," he said.
Clarifying the mine's location within the Bristol Bay watershed is another focus for Heatwole.
"There's an image they're trying to convey that we're at the headwaters of the only river in Bristol Bay and we're at the top," he said. "That really overstates the headwaters issue and where we actually are. We are at the headwaters of three of the 42 similarly sized tributaries to two rivers, reflecting less than 1 percent of the Bristol Bay watershed."
The partnership does run TV ads touting the economic benefits to Southwest Alaska, just not as frequently as its opponents. The partnership promotes in ads that the mine's construction phase could create 2,000 to 4,000 direct and indirect jobs, depending on the scope of a final plan, Heatwole said.
Two lawsuits aimed at Pebble have been filed in the last year add to the PR challenge.
One suit - filed May 5, 2009, by six tribal councils, the Alaska Independent Fishermen's Marketing Association and Trout Unlimited - is challenging the Department of Natural Resources revisions to the Bristol Bay Area Plan made in 2005. The plaintiffs allege DNR improperly reclassified millions of habitat acres to make it easier for the Pebble project to move forward.
Another suit against DNR filed July 29, 2009, by Trustees of Alaska alleges that the state agency violated the state Constitution when it granted temporary water use permits that allowed Pebble to perform exploratory drilling. The partnership has dug at least 509 core holes since exploration began. A request for an injunction to stop the drilling was denied in November and the case could be heard by this fall.
Pebble was not made a defendant in either case, but was granted intervenor status to join DNR's defense in the temporary water permit case. The partnership had a PR snafu regarding those permits when it reported improperly drawing water from unpermitted sources on 45 occasions from 2007 to 2009.
DNR suspended the permits in January, reinstating them April 23 after approving the partnership's water withdrawal plan and collecting a $45,000 fine.
Although the unpermitted withdrawals have not yet been found to have caused any environmental harm, the episode did not help the partnership's assertions it would fully comply with all regulations, nor the DNR's position that the multi-agency permitting process it will coordinate is sufficient.
DNR mining coordinator Tom Crafford said inspectors were not auditing water sourcing on site, only the reclamation and preservation of the drill areas. However, it was a state-generated interagency report that uncovered the initial violation and led to Pebble reporting the more widespread problems.
"We believed, our folks in the field believed, they were acting appropriately with authorization," Heatwole said. "We had some discrepancies between (the state Department of) Fish and Game authorizations versus DNR authorizations on water. But to pull it up to a higher level, we were still doing all the right things. We just didn't have the paperwork to back it up. That's not to downplay it or anything, but there was no environmental harm caused by our actions. We were within the limit on the number of holes we could drill and the amount of water we could take. It was significantly less than the volume we were authorized to.
"More importantly, the hoses we put in the stream had the protective mesh on them and also the draw itself, the appropriate care or steps were taken out there. We've taken steps internally to make sure we don't get that kind of gap again."
The permitting flap illustrates perfectly that the margin for error at Pebble is virtually nil, and all the assurances in the world that Bristol Bay will be preserved in its pure state are a cold comfort to Alaskans who feel their very livelihoods are at risk.
Still, Heatwole and partnership CEO John Shively, who spent 17 years with NANA Regional Corp. and helped develop the Red Dog mine, are up for the challenge.
"We have to evaluate this objectively before turning our back on it," Heatwole said. "That was something that attracted John and I to the job."
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