Now who's making the Pebble assumptions?

Kirk Wickersham

I do not have a position on the Pebble gold and copper prospect in Southwest Alaska, but I do have a position on the seemingly endless advertising and political campaign in opposition to Pebble. It is not "OK to just oppose the Pebble mine."

The truth is that there is no proposal for Pebble at this time. Technically, there's nothing to oppose. Pebble Partnership is planning, doing exploration work and creating baseline environmental data. It has not identified or located mining or facilities, much less applied for the dozens of environmental permits it would need.

The opponents of Pebble accuse the proponents of making assumptions that the mine will have little or no impact. For instance, a current Trout Unlimited ad cynically asks us to "assume" a risk-free mine operation, then morphs the word into the familiar warning that to assume makes an "Ass [of] U and Me."

Jack Stanford, the professor from Montana who wrote the Compass piece in Monday's paper, stated, "It is simply wishful thinking to assume that the Pebble prospect can be developed without long term impacts on Bristol Bay salmon." To my knowledge Pebble is still doing its environmental studies and has never assumed anything at all, "wishful" or otherwise.

It is the opponents of Pebble, not its proponents, who make assumptions. They assume how big, what and where the mine is going to be, and the technology Pebble will use to develop it. And their assumptions are always the worst-case scenario. Stanford continues, "Pebble would necessarily destroy salmon-bearing headwater streams outright and would very likely pollute many more." How can a scientist make such a statement before there's even a proposal? Only by making assumptions -- doomsday assumptions.

The opponents assume that there is no technology that can protect salmon streams, and (more radically) that there is no possibility that such technology could ever be developed. They assume that the possibility of pollution is a certainty, and that the pollution will be so severe and unmitigated that it will wipe out the Bristol Bay fishery. Stanford states, "... Pebble would put all of the salmon downstream of the site at risk; this means no less than all of the fish that (spawn in) ... the Nushagak, the Kvichak, Lake Iliamna and the vast majority of their tributaries." That's a conclusion that requires a lot of assumptions!

Most important, the opponents want us to believe that there is no scenario under which Alaska's laws, regulations, scientists, technicians, officials and people could ever be trusted with this decision. They want this mine stopped before it even gets to the permit stage. This offends me the most. Pebble has a fundamental constitutional right to apply for permits and have them evaluated according to the law. To deny them that is a blatant attempt to bypass the rule of law.

I have an idea that would give them a taste of their own medicine: How about just letting Pebble do whatever they want without any regulation or oversight at all?

Instead of assuming that a regulated Pebble mine would be an unmitigated disaster, we could assume that an unregulated Pebble mine would be no worse than the huge gold prospects of a century ago, none of which destroyed the local fisheries. And how about the biggest copper mine in the world for its time -- the Kennecott Mine at the headwaters of the Copper River, which lends its name to the most iconic and highest value fishery in Alaska?

Of course, this idea, to just let Pebble do whatever they want, is outrageous. It too would be a blatant attempt to bypass the rule of law.

There will be plenty of time for public discourse and debate when Pebble finally makes its proposal and applies for its many environmental permits. Until then, however, Alaskans who believe in the legal process and a level playing field should not support the opponents with their contributions or their votes.

Kirk Wickersham is an Anchorage lawyer and real estate broker.