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A year after Pebble, Iliamna Lake communities adjust to new normal

Suzanna Caldwell
The Pebble office in Iliamna, Alaska now stands largely empty since major investors pulled out of the project last year.
Tara Young photo
A Pebble storage yard with now defunct operating equipment.
Tara Young photo
Core samples from Pebble lie in a storage yard since major investors pulled out of the project last year.
Tara Young photo
Tref Andrews, general manager of Iliamna Development Corporation.
Tara Young photo

NEWHALEN -- Things are quiet on the north shores of Iliamna Lake.

Gone are the early mornings when dozens of trucks and four-wheelers would commute from the communities of Newhalen and Iliamna to the Pebble Partnership offices, located about 5 miles north of Newhalen, to prepare for exploration work at the site of the proposed Pebble mine. Also gone are the numerous helicopters, which each day would zoom from the Iliamna airport, a mere 18 miles from the proposed mine site.

The Pebble office is quiet, too, with just a few employees watching over the two-story building. Rooms are filled with bright orange hard hats and vests, and a large map showing off the Pebble Prospect hangs in the living room. Desks sit unoccupied. Signs warning workers to stay hydrated in the field line the walls.

But those workers find little to do these days, only watching over the buildings and two other sites, locked behind chain-link fences. Those sites are filled with square stacks of core samples, collected over the last 10 years, wrapped in black plastic, spray painted with bright orange numbers indicating their original location. Propane tanks, weather stations and orange and red “medic tents” stay stacked, too, unused and waiting.

Over the last year, the tiny communities of Newhalen and Iliamna, located on the shores of Alaska’s largest lake, have been adapting to a new kind of life since the Pebble Partnership all but shut down operations in the villages. A pause button has been pressed after almost of a decade of booming jobs in the area.

With the loss of major investors over the past year, the Pebble Partnership has all but pulled out of the communities, taking with them hard-to-find jobs in an area where little industry outside of fishing and tourism exists today.

Big conflicts exist over the project and its possible environmental impacts. Pebble could be the largest mine in North America if developed. But opposition has been fierce over the potential environmental impacts on the region and specifically the Bristol Bay wild salmon fishery, one of the most lucrative in the world. Possible impacts from the mine could be devastating, according to a report from the Environmental Protection Agency. 

According to numbers provided by the partnership, in 2012, the project employed 1,403 people in the region -- in jobs lasting from a few days to all year. Of those, 183 employees were from the Bristol Bay region. Most of those jobs were support jobs -- housekeeping, drilling, transportation and even bear watchers. In 2013, the total number of jobs dropped to 184, of which about 100 were from Bristol Bay. 

Those jobs and their current absence have created divided opinions in the two tiny communities which only about 300 people call home. In these villages, people find themselves torn between the possible environmental impacts of the mine and the desire to keep their communities healthy and whole.

Most people willing to speak on the record said they were neutral about the proposed project, though privately opinions are more mixed. Some support the development of the project, others condemn it. Those who are against the mine say the current drop in employment is negligible, those for the mine worry about social ills and unrest associated with joblessness.

Newhalen City Administrator Greg Anelon fired back against those who believe there can be no neutral points of view when it comes to the Pebble project in the region.

“There are neutral people and they have valid points to be neutral,” he said.

But regardless of where people land on the mine, leaders on Iliamna Lake wonder -- where do the communities go from here? It’s hard to replicate jobs in a place where fuel costs $6.29 a gallon and a jar of peanut butter costs $10. Even subsistence lifestyles, for so long the backbone of most communities, have changed. A cash economy is the only way to survive, a steady evolution occurring in many villages around the state.

“It’s depressing,” said Tref Andrews, general manager of Iliamna Development Corporation, a company that boomed with the Pebble presence, often transporting equipment the company brought in.

“We used to see everyone around. Now it’s quiet, no new vehicles, no new Hondas (four-wheelers), no new boats. Everyone’s staying home and hanging on to everything they have.”

“People are gathering wood like it’s going out of style,” he said.

Spreading out the jobs

For the last decade, Newhalen and Iliamna have been bustling. Not only were jobs available to the community -- some estimates suggest at least one person in every household was employed by Pebble -- but the project also brought in hundreds of outside jobs and workers, filling up local lodges. Several of those lodges are empty now.

Pebble was in town with one mission: To conduct exploratory work at the proposed Pebble mine site. Considered the world’s largest undeveloped ore body, the Pebble Partnership, owned by Northern Dynasty Minerals, says the value of the minerals could be in the $300 billion range and provide thousands of jobs over the mine’s lifetime.

But the mine has faced challenges due to its location at the headwaters of the one of the world’s premiere wild salmon fisheries. The EPA has taken unprecedented action to halt the mine under provisions of the Clean Water Act, in September releasing a report citing the mine’s potential for severe environmental impacts. Just last week, the agency began working toward restricting a potentially smaller mine in the area, essentially condemning the Pebble project. The controversy has divided many, from leaders in the region, to lawmakers in Washington D.C., environmentalists and everyday Alaskans.

One of the core arguments for the proposed mine is that it would bring economic wealth to a region with few resources outside of the fishery and tourism. According to census data, 23 percent of people living in the Lake and Peninsula Borough live below the federal poverty level, almost double the national average.

A staffer at the Newhalen Tribal Council said last year only one family was on public assistance before the pullout. She wouldn’t say how many there are now, but that it’s “a lot more.”

In Newhalen, 25 percent of the community lives below the poverty line, according to US census data. In Iliamna it’s just under 14 percent. In Nondalton, a small community of about 100 just across the Newhalen River, 55 percent live in poverty.

Jobs are hard to come by here, but a few have done their best to spread them out. Anelon, the city administrator in Newhalen, said he’s taken jobs like managing the city dump and divided it into two part-time positions. The idea is to bring income into two households instead of one.

“We want to make sure all households have some money coming in,” he said from his office in Newhalen last week.

Switching to cash

Commercial fishing, one of the drivers in the region, has slowly made its way out of the communities. Many have sold their limited entry permits that allow them to either setnet or driftnet in Bristol Bay. Anelon said 10 years ago there were 44 permits, now it’s down to 10. In Nondalton, just across the river, where there was once 30, there's only one, according to the state.

The villages are just far enough away that they can’t participate as members of the community development quota program, federally established programs that provide economic incentives to fishing communities that make their livelihoods off the Bering Sea. 

Poor fishing years, coupled with a lack of CDQ group assistance, have led many to sell their permits.

Even local subsistence fishing has seen a marked change. Anelon said when jobs were plentiful, during the July sockeye salmon fishing season, people would be out on the river and lake every day, checking their nets for fish. Now people are more conservative, only putting out nets when the run is known to be strong in an effort to conserve gas.

“It’s the harder way, but it’s just reality,” Anelon said.

Anelon is a commercial fisherman and says he’s neutral when it comes to the mine’s development. He has concerns over the environmental impacts of the proposed site, but admits that the benefits to the community could be overwhelming. A road alone, from the proposed mine site to Pile Bay, on the other side of Iliamna Lake, would allow for year-round transportation into the community. Everything is barged across the lake from the port, which connects the lake to Cook Inlet. 

Anelon said people are going elsewhere for jobs, many to the North Slope. While those jobs pay well, they often take people out of their communities for weeks at a time.

Tinny Hedlund is a registered big game guide, commercial fisherman and president of the Iliamna Village Corporation. He’s lived on the shores of Lake Iliamna for 43 of his 67 years. He said due to his dual roles, he’s neutral about the mine.

“I should be the most anti-Pebble guy,” he said about his guiding experience. “But I also have to be pro because that’s what’s best for the community.”

He said the Iliamna Village Corporation is doing what it can to create some jobs in the communities. They’re working to build housing for village public safety officers and a senior center.

“It’s hard to get jobs generated,” Hedlund said.

Pebble Partnership spokesman Mike Heatwole said despite the loss of investors and challenges from EPA, the project is still moving forward. They’re still looking to secure investors to help the partnership move into and past the permitting stages. He said they’re hoping to have more jobs out there as soon as next year, but it comes with a caveat.

“Whether [the job levels] will be back to previous years’ level, that’s not something I can speculate on at this juncture,” Heatwole said. “But it will be more than this year if we can secure a new partner.”