Paul Jenkins: Iliamna seals just the latest silly argument against Pebble

November 24, 2012 

Unable to scrounge up a proper mollusk, mouse or mold to hang their hats on, greenies aiming to save Alaska from Pebble mine have seized upon a handful of Pacific harbor seals lollygagging in Lake Iliamna. The Center for Biological Diversity is seeking federal endangered species protection for the seals to shield them from the ravages of the evil mine.

The problem? There is no mine. There is no application for a mine, no picture of a mine, no agreement on whether there even will be a mine. Nobody knows what such a mine would look like, or what technology it would employ, or how it would affect seals or mollusks or mice or mold. Nobody knows the final development plan or protocols for remediation and mitigation. None of that exists.

Apparently, that's of only fleeting interest to the center. Its motives are transparently anti-development and it finds itself a Johnny-come-lately to the Pebble fray, which has drawn Native, fishing and environmental interests like a rotting salmon draws flies.

Anti-Pebble combatants -- shamefully -- include at least one federal agency that is busy confusing politics and science.

The Environmental Protection Agency, jumping the gun to kill the Pebble project and panting to flex its regulatory muscle well beyond existing law, already has embarrassed itself. It offered a flawed, rushed survey of the potential effects of large-scale mining in the Bristol Bay watershed based on a mythical mine using outdated technology. It was lousy work, drawing fire even from the agency's own peer review panel.

Now comes the center and its seal pals. There are five subspecies of harbor seals. They have the broadest distribution of the pinnipeds, numbering perhaps 6 million worldwide. Lake Iliamna's handful are not land-locked. They have direct access, via the Kvichak River, to saltwater some 100 miles away and there is no concrete proof any or all remain year-round in the lake, 200 miles southwest of Anchorage. It is rare for harbor seals to establish year-round, freshwater populations, and if Iliamna's have, they would constitute one of five such groups in the entire northern hemisphere.

But none of that matters. Nobody, except folks who for generations have a hunted a few of them annually for food, cares a whit. The seals just as well could have been cooties or web-footed wombats or the lake's reported Loch Ness-style monster thingy. The seals are just the latest fodder in the propaganda blitz to head off a mine -- before an application can be filed or the facts aired, debated and vetted.

The tale now is that a 140-mile mine road to a Cook Inlet port would pass along 50 to 60 miles of lake shore, where seals hunt salmon. Toss in ocean acidification and climate change and, well, the looming danger is obvious. Surprisingly, the anti-development bunch did not include flush toilets or chickweed as threats to the seals.

The arguments against Pebble are getting sillier, but the prospect, by most accounts, is worth fighting for.

Its likely developer, Pebble Limited Partnership, says it could produce 80.6 billion pounds of copper, 107.4 million ounces of gold and 5.6 billion pounds of molybdenum -- and would be a boon in the economically depressed region, creating jobs and wealth.

The propaganda war over the prospect has raged for years, with opponents claiming a mine will devastate the rich Bristol Bay fisheries -- and apparently their blizzard of half-truths and outright lies is paying off.

At the Resource Development Council conference this month, Pebble Partnership's vice president for public affairs, Mike Heatwole, said a discussion in one of his kids' classes recently turned to salmon runs in Cook Inlet. A teaching assistant asked: If salmon come and spawn and lay thousands of eggs, why are we having declining salmon runs?

A kid says, " 'Because of the Pebble mine,' " Heatwole told the audience. "The teaching assistant, not skipping a beat, says, 'Yes, that's a very good reason' and moves along."

How many others think the same about a mine that does not exist? The damage to Alaska is being done daily, one fib at a time. We should wonder why Pebble opponents -- including the EPA -- are wildly adverse to an open, honest and thorough mine permitting process. We should wonder what Pebble opponents are hiding. Why not let an application go forward and allow the process to work?

Why are they so afraid?

Paul Jenkins is editor of the AnchorageDailyPlanet.com.

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