Northern Dynasty Mines' chief of operations says designing the cleanest operation possible for the company's proposed Pebble Mine northwest of Iliamna requires a continuing dialogue with organizations concerned about the environment, but he bristles at what he called fear mongering by "fringe elements" of that community.
One description doesn't cover all environmental groups, said Bruce Jenkins in an interview Sept. 15 during a company-provided tour of NDM's Iliamna headquarters and proposed mine site.
"On the one hand, there are fringe elements that are dead-set against mining anywhere no matter how good it is," he said. "On the other end of the spectrum are what I would characterize as responsible environmental groups that play this important watchdog role, ask tough and important questions, monitor what you are doing and make sure that you fulfill your obligations for an environmentally responsible mining project and are actively involved in the permitting process."
Jenkins said he welcomes that sort of engagement. But while he maintains an open-door policy and is willing to talk to anyone, he decried the tactics of those he said put a "negative spin on the project and misuse information or misrepresent the project."
Asked who he saw as representative of the two ends of the environmental community spectrum, Jenkins said the Nature Conservancy had shown professionalism in working with Northern Dynasty to help them develop an environmentally friendly mine design.
He named Alaskans for Responsible Mining and its campaign director, Scott Brennan, as among those he said were spreading inaccurate information to an ill-informed public.
"They are trying to create an aura of fear in communities that aren't very knowledgeable about mining or how safe it can be," he said.
Some environmental groups, Jenkins said, have taken residents of the proposed mining area to "some of the worst-case mining operations in the U.S.," some of them decades old, and were pointing to environmental disasters in Eastern Europe and suggesting a similar outcome at Pebble.
"They're dead wrong," Jenkins insisted.
The lengthy and detailed permitting process that could take upwards of two years would demonstrate that fact, he said.
Asked for reaction to Jenkins' assessment of their activities, Brennan said Pebble proponents have resorted to name-calling, while he preferred to focus on facts.
"The modern mining industry's track record speaks for itself and the threat Pebble poses is magnified by two factors: The mining industry's push to allow mixing zones in salmon spawning habitat and its desire to dump chemically processed mining waste in Alaskan lakes, rivers and streams," he said. "Pebble would return very little to the people of the state and it would pose a very real threat to clean water, healthy habitat and the existing Alaskan jobs that depend on them."
As to the level of threat to the Bristol Bay fisheries, Scott said that if Pebble were developed, it would be one of the largest open pit copper-gold mines in the world. It might also be just one part of a major mining district.
He added the Bristol Bay fisheries were "world-class," and that wild salmon and trout were "extremely sensitive to pollution." He called the mining industry the single largest source of toxic releases in the country.
Regarding Jenkins' assurance that the risks would be documented and submitted to the scientific community, and that NDM would be able to prove the safety of its design, Brennan said that from a scientific standpoint, such proof would be impossible.
"No unbiased scientist would make such a claim," he said.
He urged Alaskans to evaluate the industry's track record.
David Banks, state director of the Nature Conservancy's Alaska Branch, said the organization is not under any kind of contract with Northern Dynasty. It is, however, working with villages along the Nushagak and Koktuli River trying to develop a watershed plan to protect subsistence fish and game.
"We aren't an advocacy organization," he said. "Our focus is on protecting fish and wildlife, lands and waters. We will listen to corporations and we certainly want to be concerned about the impacts of activities of corporations and what they might be on fish and wildlife. Our work related to Pebble is about how to protect fish and wildlife and land and water around the mine."
Banks said constructing and operating a mine involves significant risk.
"We've said this to Bruce (Jenkins). The mine is a threat to fish and wildlife resources," Banks said. "He knows we are concerned but we are going to talk to the mine owners. That's probably the big difference" between the Nature Conservancy and some other groups, he said.
Nature Conservancy would make any information it develops available to the public, Banks said.
"Pebble can use it however they want to. I hope that Alaskans for Responsible Mining will use it as much as Pebble. We've taken no position on the project. It's important for people to know that," he said. "But we are concerned about the potential impacts, not just of the mine but also of roads and power lines. It is not something we approve of by any means."
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