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Small Pebble will become big Pebble — and the answer is still no

  • Author: Dave Atcheson
    | Opinion
  • Updated: June 28, 2017
  • Published June 28, 2017

This is an aerial view of a work camp in the area of the proposed Pebble Mine in Iliamna, seen on Tuesday, August 27, 2013. (Bill Roth/ADN archive 2013.)

There should be no doubt in anyone's mind that the Pebble Mine will end up being massive. Northern Dynasty Minerals, like all companies, is required to maximize profit for its shareholders. History and basic economics tell us that once they get access in Bristol Bay, they will mine every inch they possibly can.

Pebble's latest gambit, talk of a "smaller mine and less infrastructure," is a common ruse used time and again to gain entry to a certain area before the inevitable expansion that leaves a trail of ruin in its wake.

Any effort to develop a scaled-down mine in the heart of Bristol Bay should be seen for what it is: another ploy aimed at glossing over the massive risk posed by Pebble. Their claim is simply the latest attempt to gain a toehold and initiate mining in one of our country's and the world's last remaining strongholds of wild salmon.

Make no mistake: if built, Pebble will keep expanding its operation until every ounce of the resource is extracted. Not only is expansion the next logical step for any mining company, but with the finances and infrastructure needed for a project of this type in Bristol Bay, it is a necessary next step. A large mine is the only way to recoup their investment, make a profit, and satisfy their stockholders. Expansion, in nearly every instance, is the rule and not the exception.

In fact, in a recent corporate presentation, the Pebble Limited Partnership, while promising a substantially smaller project, also touts a production schedule that lasts "a very long time." Pebble also continues to extol the value of the billions of tons of ore available for extraction in the region to current and potential shareholders. They have identified a "World Class Mineral Resource with 5.9 billion tonnes of Measured & Indicated ore, and 4.8 billion tonnes of Inferred ore" (The Pebble Prospect, Northern Dynasty Minerals, February 2014). Within the framework of a small-scale project, how would Pebble ever be able to keep the promises it is making to its shareholders? If this deposit is economically viable, as they claim, then they will/must develop it, in its entirety.

A series of expansions, rather than one large plan, is problematic in many ways. First, planning for proper cleanup once the ore is gone or the company leaves or goes bankrupt is much more difficult for all parties. Further, when a project is done piecemeal, with varying permits and oversight, it obscures the inevitable damage and mires mitigation in further bureaucracy, and often in court.

One of many examples of this is the Zortman-Landusky Mines in Montana. These are two connected projects owned by Pegasus Gold, who promised to stay small and to not mine sulfide ore, yet expanded 19 times in the 20 years they were in operation. Pegasus Gold was actually in the process of applying for another expansion when they declared bankruptcy in 1998, leaving the State of Montana, the United States government, and the U.S. taxpayer holding the bag for $57 million in clean-up and monitoring costs. Much of that damage was due to acid rock drainage and sulfide mining, which they initially promised not to undertake.

And while much of the surrounding area in Montana is certainly beautiful, it is by no means the stunning natural wonder, with pristine water and a world-class salmon fishery, that is Bristol Bay. There is undeniably no other place on the entire planet like the Bristol Bay basin. It is the premier fishing destination for anglers throughout the world, and a commercial fishing powerhouse that continues, and will continue forever if we take care of it, to feed the people of this region and our national economy to the tune of more than $1.5 billion dollars a year.

When considering this type of development within such a fertile and sensitive area as Bristol Bay, we must be wary and cognizant of the fact that plans often change. Companies frequently come under new leadership or are sold. If Northern Dynasty, a foreign investment company with no real roots in Alaska and only beholden to its investors, gets a foothold, we can be assured it will serve its own best interest and not ours. In that reality, their promises of a small footprint and responsible development will mean absolutely nothing.

Like the last of the buffalo, a fading symbol of our once-thriving wilderness, salmon stocks that once flourished in the Lower 48 are now maintained only in select pockets. Yet Bristol Bay stands as an emblem of all that is wild, productive, and pure, and it is up to us to decide what legacy we wish to leave for future generations of Alaskans. The choice is ours — and we should choose wild salmon in Bristol Bay over the Pebble Mine.

Dave Atcheson is an Alaska-based author whose latest book is "Dead Reckoning, Navigating a Life on the Last Frontier, Courting Tragedy on its High Seas." He is also the author of National Geographic's "Hidden Alaska, Bristol Bay and Beyond," and the guidebook "Fishing Alaska's Kenai Peninsula."

The views expressed here are the writer's and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary@alaskadispatch.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@alaskadispatch.com. 

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