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For Bella Hammond, the fight over Pebble is far from finished

Carey RestinoThe Arctic Sounder
Bella Hammond worries that exploration camps for a proposed Pebble Mine, such as this one, photographed in 2011, are already affecting the environment. EPA photo

Editor's note: This interview was conducted before Friday's announcement that the EPA would launch a review process that will halt the mine temporarily, and could stop it permanently.

Ask former first lady of Alaska Bella Hammond what people should do regarding the proposed Pebble Mine, not to mention a host of other statewide issues and she’s very clear.

“Pay attention. Listen,” Hammond advised.

Hammond, now 80, has in recent years taken an increasingly public stance against the proposed Pebble Mine. The widow of two-term Gov. Jay Hammond, who oversaw the construction of the trans-Alaska pipeline and the creation of the Alaska Permanent Fund, Bella Hammond continues to live on their remote homestead in Port Alsworth on Lake Clark.

Recent news that the Pebble Mine project’s major funding partner, Anglo American, was pulling out was welcome, Hammond said last week during a trip to Southcentral Alaska, but she said she’s not making the assumption that the fight is over.

Hammond said she started to get concerned about the project as she learned more and more about the scope of what was being proposed and the possible impacts it could have. While she said she’s admittedly not much of one for computers, Hammond said she keeps as up-to-date as she can, following the debates in Juneau and reading the papers. Whenever possible, she attends events like the Environmental Protection Agency hearings in Anchorage to listen to what everyone has to say. Her impression of the proposed mine and its potential impacts on the region are definite.

“I think it simply is a bad, bad choice,” Hammond said.

Hammond said she’s frustrated by the argument she hears time and again in Juneau that Alaskans should reserve judgment until some concrete plans are submitted. But given the scope of the proposed mine as it has been presented, Hammond said, it is obviously bad news. In fact, she’s opposed to any mining in the Bristol Bay watershed, saying it’s just too risky to the valuable salmon industry.

“There’s a huge caldron of waste that will be there,” she said. “I have never heard much good about mining.”

Hammond said the more she got involved in the effort, the more she started hearing from people in the Lower 48 concerned about the impacts such a mine would have in Alaska. People from places like Montana called her out of the blue to warn her not to let the project go forward.

“One person told me there’s a place birds fly in and they don’t fly out -- there’s just so much toxic material,” she said. “Several years ago, someone I didn’t know called me from Montana begging me over the phone, ‘Don’t let them do that. You’ll be sorry if you ever let that go through.’”

For Hammond, the proposed mine is more than just political, it’s personal. The potential impacts to her friends and neighbors, not to mention the Bristol Bay fishery, which employs many in the region, are of grave concern, she said. While some argue that the region needs the jobs, Hammond disagrees, saying jobs do exist in the region.

“There are jobs here but people don’t want them,” she said, noting that there are some who use that argument as an excuse to take a pro-Pebble stance. “You have to wonder a little bit.”

As well, Hammond said without the proposed mine jobs, rural Alaskans would likely do what they have been doing for generations -- adapt. Considering what people had to do to survive even a generation or two ago, today’s challenges pale in comparison, she said.

That said, today’s world does present some challenges for even the adaptable, as Hammond found out first-hand last year after the state launched an effort to recover $1 million in legal fees from Hammond and Vic Fischer, plaintiffs in a legal case regarding Pebble Mine.

Hammond said she hasn’t heard any news about whether the state is still pursuing the effort to recoup expenses, an effort that drew criticism from many who supported the two longtime Alaskans and their effort to stop the state from moving forward with the proposed mine.

Hammond said the state’s attempt to collect money from her came as a complete surprise, since she had been advised that such action was not a risk. But now she has learned that laws were changed a decade or so ago, allowing the state to attempt to recoup legal expenses from private individuals who have sued the state and lost.

The state action hasn’t dissuaded her from being a vocal opponent of the Pebble Mine, and even of the current exploratory work going on at the Pebble Prospect. Until last fall when funding for the project dried up, the Pebble Partnership was drilling numerous mines in the region, and Hammond said there was little oversight of that action by the state.

“I am worried about the impact that is occurring right now,” she said. “It wasn’t being monitored. They make promises that there will be inspections, but they were never done.”

Hammond said she heard from locals working in the area that some of the work wasn’t being done carefully. She has concerns about the drill stems that are left.

“I feel like there is much more they should be doing,” she said.

Hammond said she’s encouraged by the EPA’s Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment, and is carefully watching what happens next. The agency recently heard from a group of Alaskans urging it to move forward with regulatory action that they hope will restrict mining altogether in the region. But so far, the EPA is remaining mum about its next step, though agency officials did say an announcement would be coming soon. Some in the region have expressed concern that EPA action restricting mining could shut down all development in the Bristol Bay region, something Hammond said she can’t see happening. Editor's note: The EPA has since said it will intervene. You can read more here.

“That’s just not the case,” she said. “What do you think hearings are for? If you want to be heard, speak up.”

Hammond said her biggest concern moving forward is the amount of ignorance she continues to encounter on her travels talking with people she said ought to know more about a proposed project the scope of the Pebble Mine.

“People are not as well-educated as they should be,” she said. “Over and over I am appalled by how little people know. They have to be told about it, and you can’t just say it once. You have to say it over and over.”

Hammond said she plans to continue to speak up and educate herself about not only the Pebble Project but other happenings in the state as much as she can from her home, and hopes others do the same.

“We have a fishery that is viable and productive,” she said. “It’s the most important treasure and it should be guarded.”

Carey Restino is editor of The Arctic Sounder and The Bristol Bay Times/Dutch Harbor Fisherman, where the preceding interview was first published.