December's National Geographic -- the premier magazine of its kind in the world -- focuses the global spotlight on Bristol Bay and the proposed Pebble mine project.
For years, Alaskans -- myself included -- have objected to federal intervention in our state. Politicians who live in the Lower 48, many in areas that are polluted beyond repair, do little to protect their own environment because of short-term economic consequences. The lockup of even a small directional drilling pad in ANWR while allowing Gulf drilling in waters a mile deep seems ridiculous to us. Alaska has been, and probably will always be, a place of National Conscience ... often of guilty conscience for all the mistakes of the South 48 dealing with land, waters, resources and Native Americans.
While I have worked with or for mining interests as a participant, air taxi operator and in public service all of my adult life, learning about the Pebble prospect has stretched my comfort zone. I cannot support this mine in this place.
No, I did not fall and hit my head. I still enjoy my heavy equipment. I still enjoy building roads, airstrips and trails. I am still a Republican. However, like the late Sen. Ted Stevens, I believe the Pebble mine prospect is unlike anything Alaska has ever seen or can even imagine.
Bristol Bay, as the National Geographic article "Alaska's Choice: Salmon or Gold" so accurately portrays, is unique in the world and is the last great stronghold for a complete red salmon ecosystem. Flying the photographer and writer to these amazing locations was a privilege. The country speaks so well for itself, words hardly do it justice.
The type of ore body at Pebble is extremely dangerous. If the prospect were named for what it's primarily made of, we'd be calling it a sulfur mine with a little copper, gold and molybdenum. Once that ore is ground to powder, it becomes our responsibility to guard the tailings from the combination of air and water that generates sulfuric acid. It becomes Alaska's liability for endless generations.
That is why I join the overwhelming majority of those from Southwest Alaska in opposing development of the Pebble deposit. Mining has an important place in this state but the margin for error in Bristol Bay is much narrower than in other areas. The size, type and location of the deposit are what make Pebble so problematic.
The largest open pit mine in the United States is Bingham Canyon Mine in Utah, located in a dry climate close to Salt Lake City. It has polluted 72 square miles of the aquifers beneath it and is only a third of the size of the ore body that Pebble Limited Partnership has told shareholders is mineable, which is 30 times the size of the largest mine in Alaska.
The cost of the hundred-mile access route around the east end of Lake Iliamna to a new deepwater port on Cook Inlet would be very high. Infrastructure development will require roads, pipelines, power generation and concentrate transportation. Any mine development plan would have to be massive in scale to be profitable. There is no feasible small development alternative.
The discussion moving into the national spotlight will be bigger than the ANWR debate. The values are high and until there is finality there will be collateral damage. From fish buyers to mine investors, Pebble is a concern. The sad thing for many of us who see both sides of this argument is not only that the Pebble development would probably cause irreversible loss to the last, best wild salmon fishery on Earth, but that the reaction of the National Conscience if that were to occur would likely destroy reasonable mining in Alaska for a century. Whether we appreciate or resent being a place of National Conscience doesn't change that it is a matter of fact.
Rick Halford, former state Senate president and 24-year member of the Alaska Legislature, now lives with his family in Chugiak and Aleknagik. Halford has been a registered guide since the early 1970s, is a commercial pilot with close to 10,000 hours in the air over Alaska and is a consultant to Nunamta Aulukestai and Trout Unlimited Alaska.
By RICK HALFORD