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Opportunity: How my opinion of Pebble mine changed

Melvin Andrew

My name is Melvin Andrew. I live in Manokotak. I was born in Akiachuk and raised in Tuluksak, Manokotak, Kongiganak, and Bethel. I cannot truly call one community my home as many can claim, but I’m happy to say, “I’m from Alaska!” I married a wonderful woman from Manokotak and have called this my home for over 28 years.

"My personal pebble" is my metaphor that relates to one’s own grain of rock amongst a world of gazillions of grains of rock! Long and short translating to: insignificant in opinion, but among many.

I adamantly opposed Pebble before, following the ‘crowd’ who opposed it due to water and fish issues. Water and fish is our life, sustenance, and way of life. I was raised commercial fishing and subsistence fishing my whole life and know the importance of them.

Today we live in a Westernized culture, even in remote communities. Just about everything requires money to operate, even a subsistence way of life. There are many ways of earning a living besides commercial fishing. But in the past decade, many commercial fishermen required another way to support the rising cost of living and the subsistence way of life. Without a good job, a subsistence way of life is hard. The cost of boats, outboard motors, snowmachines, nets, guns, sleds, traps, gas, oil, and parts have skyrocketed. The fortunate have succeeded, but many lost their boats and permits. Those who lost their permits had no choice but become recipients of welfare and/or seek another form of income. A few jobs are available in small communities, but many of them are seasonal. Low income living, or poverty, settled in. However, our cultural instinct kicked in, and we help each other providing for those who cannot provide for themselves. Yet, the loss of a permit often comes with a huge price. The fortunate have jobs to support their cost of living. Having a job became more important that having a permit. Just recently the price of gasoline and heating oil skyrocketed making it impossible to provide yearlong fuel for commercial fishing. Many organizations helped with heating fuel, including foreign country leaders. Many were forced back to wood stoves. But even wood gathering requires gasoline, snowmachine, sled, chainsaw, axe, truck, or ATV! Wood gathering and use is a lot of work and requires vigil operation and maintenance of stove.

My opinion of Pebble’s opportunity for jobs and economic possibility changed when I was released from my job of over 23 years. Reality struck in. I had no commercial fishing permit, no job, and cost of living was ridiculously high. For two years, we struggled to make ends meet, but we managed. I began to see, first-hand, what others were going through. Some become criminals; bootlegging, drug-dealing, and stealing. My retirement benefits didn’t last long. We became faithful recipients of food stamps and any low-income help. Where’s our corporation? Where’s our state government? Where is the help?

A dim light began glowing from the North. There are many natural resources besides fish in Bristol Bay and Alaska, but they are not readily available or accepted. Mineral studies employed some folks from my community and this prospect began warming my curiosity. Many opposing Pebble are ‘well-to-do,’ who have successfully adapted to secure jobs and commercial fishing. Many of these cannot live a total subsistence way of life, but have family members who provide them with subsistence gathering and hunting. Some have the ability to barter subsistence food from those less fortunate. I have utilized this bartering of subsistence gathering to those who can afford a $400 five-gallon bucket of salmonberries. Expensive you say? Cost of gas and everything is up and the cost of bartering them has skyrocketed as well. Okay, let’s look and see if it is reasonable. A six gallon tank of gasoline at $6.20 is $37.20. An 18-foot skiff is about $6,500.00. An outboard motor is about $6,800.00. Then buckets, food, and other necessities to ward off bugs and bears is about $450.00. It takes about four hours of continuous bending and picking each berry cleanly to fill about four gallons. But first you need to find a good patch to even fill a gallon. So usually it’s a day’s work to fill one, five-gallon bucket. If you have a regular job, you’d have to go pick berries after work. You get it! Or not, you will not get it until you have picked one five gallon bucket for yourself!

I needed a job to support my wife and family. I applied to a Pebble job against my own will and ‘belief’. My first exposure and engagement with Pebble was a Site tour and I questioned them intensely with arrogance and ignorance. I have been involved in local government since 1990 and jobs and economy have been in the decline. I began researching Pebble. My second engagement with Pebble was an interview for the job I applied for. To my surprise I was accepted. I had questioned the CEO about how Pebble will enhance the fishing industry, face to face. I was sure I would not be accepted.

I am now convinced that Pebble is a real opportunity that we need to carefully look at and allow them to prove. This is my own decision and opinion and neither Pebble nor its employees, scientists, or geologists have any part in my opinion. This is a real opportunity that can support many individuals and families struggling to meet ends. This is a real opportunity, economically, for not only Bristol Bay, but the whole state and nation! The potential for local businesses is unimaginable. The potential of enhancing the fisheries is beyond our capability to grasp it. Cost of living and operation of current fishing costs keeps the market value lower than $1/pound. If the cost of catching and processing is reduced then the market value will certainly rise to $1/pound or more! Current infrastructure and the high cost of the fishing business in Bristol Bay plays a big part of low market value.

Today’s technology greatly increases the ability to protect the environment in any large scale natural resource development. Mining technology has come a long way, but still is in the business of proving itself, even to the faint-hearted, as I was.

I have opened my closed mind about Pebble’s possibilities, but remain vigilant to protecting our water, land, and fish! Our state’s environmental laws are the most stringent in our nation and the world. We do not need EPA’s unruly hand restricting our commercial and subsistence rights even more. Damn the day they come enforcing their ‘above the law’ tactics. I will not lay blame on others who welcome this tyrannical agency, but I will lay blame on myself for not doing my part in rejecting them.

I ask each Bristol Bay resident to truly ask yourself, laying aside emotional and traditional beliefs, what can I do to improve the quality of life for my people and region? Many of us who are financially able to provide for our families with a home, clothes, and food really do not know the struggle that the unfortunate go through on a daily basis. I know I’ve been there.

I challenge the local and regional corporations to truly seek truth and search the truth of what is happening in our region. Why are commercial fishing permits and jobs being taken by outsiders and non-Alaskans? Where are the jobs and opportunities which our corporation is originally structured to provide for us (in a place that’s always been)? Quarterly dividends are most welcome, but do little in suppressing the rising cost of living. Who really owns these fish processing companies and who are the main markets for fish? Is the fishing industry capable of providing jobs and economy for more than three to four months of a year? How can we keep our communities retaining the minimum census to receive pliable federal and state funds, especially keeping our local schools open? Local communities are losing population and schools!

JOBS! JOBS! JOBS!

I am one of lucky few, but I wish those less fortunate could have the same opportunities I have and get a job.

True example -- I saw a young man this past summer walking, looking depressed with his head down. I asked him, “Why aren’t you fishing?” He said, “I wasn’t hired this summer.” I told him about the seasonal summer jobs with the local government, but he said he applied, but wasn’t hired. His father recently passed on and their family does not own a commercial fishing permit let alone a decent year-round job. I told him about jobs at the Pebble site, but could not promise work. Two weeks later, he left for work at Iliamna. Over a month later I saw him on site working and when he saw me, he gave me the biggest smile. Now I know he was okay, but still this was only a seasonal job. Imagine him working year-round to support his family. I can only imagine.

Melvin Andrew lives in Manokotak.

The preceding commentary first appeared in The Bristol Bay Times and is republished here with permission. The views expressed above are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.