When Mike Heatwole, vice president of corporate communications for the Pebble Limited Partnership, gave a status report of the controversial and beleaguered Pebble project to a friendly audience in Anchorage Thursday afternoon, he laced his speech with sadness and resignation.
"What a difference a year makes. If you think about it, what a difference a few months makes," Heatwole told attendees at the Alaska Miners Association convention.
Heatwole's company would build one of the world's largest open-pit copper mines in the headwaters of Alaska's Bristol Bay. He closed his presentation with a slideshow of smiling workers, in the company's Anchorage office, in the field and elsewhere. All were laid off after Anglo American, the moneyed partner in the project, announced in September that it was abandoning Pebble and its investment in it.
The Pebble partners had planned to submit a formal mine plan by the end of the year, kicking off permitting applications, he said. Now, with Vancouver-based Northern Dynasty Minerals Ltd as the only remaining partner, that timetable is unclear. Heatwole, who admitted to choking up when he reviewed the photos of now-unemployed colleagues, said news about future plans will come later this month when Northern Dynasty CEO Ron Thiessen is scheduled to give a speech making the case for investing in Pebble.
The annual miners' convention is the epicenter of the pro-Pebble universe in a state where opposition is widespread to a project that would create a giant open-pit mine on largely unspoiled southwestern Alaska land upstream from the world's biggest sockeye salmon runs.
At the convention, in the Sheraton hotel, pro-Pebble buttons and stickers are plentiful, as is strong rhetoric against the Environmental Protection Agency and environmental activists. At this gathering, abandonment by Anglo America is a widely characterized as a big loss for all Alaska miners.
'EPA storm troopers'
NovaCopper Inc. Chief Executive Rick Van Nieuwenhuyse, who referred to "EPA storm troopers" and called staffers at Anchorage environmental law firm Trustees for Alaska "the biggest hypocrites in the world," said that and other events had added up to a tough year for the industry.
Anglo American's departure from Pebble and the issues surrounding it, plus an announcement in July that International Tower Hill Mines Ltd's Livengood gold project is not viable at current commodity prices, casts a pall on Alaska mining in general, he said.
"There's a sense out in the investment world that Alaska is a tough place to make it in mineral projects," Van Nieuwenhuyse, whose company is pursuing its own copper project in Alaska, said in a keynote address.
Ed Fogels, deputy commissioner at the Alaska Department of Natural Resources and, for several years, the state official in charge of large-mine permitting, also lamented the loss of Anglo American.
"I was disappointed. Not for Pebble. It's investment that's leaving Alaska. It's a win for the anti-Pebble folks," Fogels said.
He lamented the "uproar" about Pebble, complete with expensive advertising campaigns and "misinformation" about the state's competence in regulating mining and limiting pollution.
The anti-Pebble campaign has been personal at times for him. Once, there was a website devoted to hatred of him specifically, he said. And his participating in a local fly-fishing association has become awkward as Pebble opponents there become more vocal, he said.
Most troubling to him, he said, is the erosion of confidence in state regulators.
"It's been kind of hard over the years to see that whole campaign cast a poor light on our people," he said. "I think it's affected all resource development going forth in Alaska, one way or another."
But one prominent Pebble opponent disputed the contention that his side has damaged prospects for Alaska development in general.
"It's not about mining. It's the location," said Anders Gustafson, executive director of the Renewable Resources Coalition, one of the most visible opponents of the Pebble project. "We're not against mining. We're trying to protect this renewable resource."
Pebble's demise, if it becomes final, could be a good thing for the Alaska mining industry, he argued. That mine was potentially a "bad apple in a good industry" that could spoil the climate for other mines, and Anglo American's decision was a wise choice about something that was ultimately a bad business plan, he said.
Mining is not the only industry with investment decisions to make about Southwest Alaska, Gustafson said. He predicted that new money will flow into the region if EPA follows its ongoing Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment with new and permanent protections for the region and it becomes clear that Pebble will not happen.
"As the coffin gets nailed gather and tighter ... you're going to have the certainty for the fishing industry and the tourism industry," he said.
Even some of the Pebble supporters at the miners' convention tacitly acknowledged that the project carries a stigma.
The Pebble partnership's trade-show booth, where supporters were supplied with their pro-Pebble paraphernalia, was manned Thursday by two of the company's laid-off workers, an environmental specialist and a geologist. The geologist, the daughter of a Southeast Alaska commercial fisherman, asked that her name not be used in an article.
"This project is pretty controversial," she said with a laugh. "I try to keep a low internet profile."
Contact Yereth Rosen at yereth(at)alaskadispatch.com