Alaskans object to mine at London shareholders meeting

Elizabeth Bluemink

For at least a few minutes on Thursday, the debate over Alaska's massive Pebble copper and gold prospect captured the attention of an international mining company and its shareholders in London.

A Pebble opponent, Verner Wilson of Dillingham, spoke out against the potential mine in Southwest Alaska to a crowd of business people assembled at London-based mining giant Anglo American's annual shareholders meeting. Anglo is Pebble's major financial backer.

Wilson was the only one of about 10 Alaskans -- including some Pebble supporters -- who could get to London in time for the meeting. The others' flights were grounded due to ash from Iceland's volcanic eruptions.

Anglo American has dozens of mining projects around the world but Pebble was the only one mentioned by Anglo chairman Sir John Parker during his opening remarks at Thursday's meeting, held in a conference center across the street from London's Westminster Abbey.

Parker termed Pebble "a very early-state project in which Anglo American has an interest," according to Anglo's transcript of his remarks. Anglo and its Pebble partner, Canada-based Northern Dynasty Minerals, plan to begin seeking permits to develop a mine next year.

"Our bottom line remains that, if the project cannot be designed in a way that provides the proper protections for Alaska's fisheries and wildlife, or to the livelihoods of Alaskan communities, then it shouldn't be built," he said.

If built, Pebble would be one of the largest copper-gold mines in the world, providing hundreds of jobs and billions of dollars' worth of metals for decades, its supporters say.

But Wilson and other Pebble opponents assailed Anglo on Thursday for continuing to bankroll the mining project despite opposition from fishermen, hunters, environmentalists and Alaska Native tribes, villages and companies. They say Pebble is an unacceptable risk due to its size and location in the headwaters of two of the five rivers that feed Bristol Bay's salmon fisheries.

Wilson, speaking by phone from London during a press conference in Anchorage on Thursday, said he told the Anglo executives during the shareholders meeting about polls sponsored by anti-Pebble groups indicating that a majority of Bristol Bay region residents oppose Pebble.

After years of neutrality, the regional Native corporation, Bristol Bay Native Corp., announced last year that it also opposes Pebble.

Wilson said Anglo should stick to its commitment last year to abandon Pebble if the project fails to gain support from the affected communities.

But Anglo published a press statement Thursday saying that it has received "numerous letters of support" from village Native corporations, village councils and others in the region.

"There are many perspectives to the Pebble project and Anglo American hopes all are considered," the company said in its press release.

Several Bristol Bay Native village corporations that are withholding judgment on Pebble hosted their own press conference in Anchorage on Thursday at which they discussed declining job opportunities in their villages. They said Pebble should not be blocked before the mining companies publish their studies.

The executives from four village Native corporations, each of which has contracted for work on Pebble, said they were thwarted from attending the shareholders meeting in London due to the erupting volcano.

In a joint letter they sent to Anglo chief executive Cynthia Carroll on Tuesday, the executives wrote: "Many claim to represent the residents of Bristol Bay but you should know that our region is a big place. We respectfully disagree with those from our region who have traveled to London to speak in opposition to Pebble."

One of them, Abe Williams of Naknek-based Paug-Vik Inc., said he distrusts the polling by the anti-Pebble groups.

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