It's old news that Alaskans aren't willing to trade their world-class salmon resource in Bristol Bay for a mine much larger than all of the other hard rock mines in Alaska combined. It's also no surprise that Pebble proponents are not listening to us.
As Alaska Dispatch News reported on Nov. 3, Bristol Bay residents and businesses are concerned that Pebble proponents will be allowed to walk away from Bristol Bay, leaving the state and taxpayers with the responsibility and the bill for cleaning up the mess left behind from drilling 1,300 holes and tens of thousands of pounds of material. This is the standard playbook in the mining industry. Make a mess, walk away, and let someone else clean it up. Despite their rhetoric, early indications are that Pebble will be no different.
Instead of cleaning up their mess and being good neighbors, Pebble has prioritized spending its money on Washington, D.C. lobbyists, contractors and lawyers to harass Alaskans. Instead of acting in good faith and following through on promises, it's whining to D.C. lawmakers about an Environmental Protection Agency review process that Alaskans requested. It is using public relations schemes to promote a mine that its neighbors and a majority of Alaskans don't want.
In a time when our state budget needs a tourniquet, we can't afford to be saddled with the risks associated with cleaning up after a mining company. Alaskans can't afford to develop one resource at the expense of another, and we need to make sure the agencies managing our resources are carrying out what the people of Alaska want. Judging from cases like the Platinum mine where a federal biologist, not Alaska's Department of Natural Resources or Department of Environmental Conservation, alerted us to problems, our state agencies' track record does not lend much confidence.
It's cases like this that make us concerned about the 1,300 holes and tens of thousands of pounds of materials that Pebble has left on the ground. Just recently DNR, under current Deputy Commissioner Ed Fogels' watch, backdated a permit to Pebble so it can continue operating. This is the same DNR which has excused Pebble from submitting its Annual Reclamation Statement. This is the same DNR which conducted a field inspection this summer, led by Pebble public relations staff, and documented eight sites with problems. They only visited 24 sites, yet there are over 1,300 drill sites around the Pebble prospect. If one-third of those visited have problems, then in reality there are likely many more with serious problems.
In the same ADN article, Pebble claimed "no environmental harm has been done at the Pebble site," but history disputes that. In 2010, Pebble admitted to withdrawing water without a permit on 45 separate occasions over a three-year period. In 2009 a well hole, not properly plugged and only a short distance from Pebble's base camp, leached minerals, drilling sludge and groundwater onto the tundra for three years before it was appropriately plugged. Once again, private citizens identified the problem, not Pebble or DNR. Private citizens shouldn't be the ones identifying these problems.
If Alaskan citizens are choosing protections for fish we need to ensure our state laws reflect this by holding mining companies accountable for messes left behind, even messes created during exploration. We also need to make sure those companies, not cash-strapped state agencies, are financially responsible for their actions.
As Alaskans, we have a choice to stand up for our fisheries with the Walker administration, which promised to do things differently. We need to hold him accountable so that his staff will hold Pebble accountable. Pebble needs to spend what's left of its money cleaning up its mess instead of on lawyers and lobbyists misleading and mischaracterizing Alaskans.
Pebble should not and cannot get a free pass, and it's up to Alaskans to hold it accountable.
Kimberly Williams is executive director of Nunamta Aulukestai, a coalition of village corporations and tribal governments based in Dillingham.