In today's hyper-political world, there seems to be an endless supply of issues and events to shake one's confidence in the human experiment. But to me, there's one threat that rises above them all.
Increasingly, our society has turned its back on reason — on listening to one another and forming opinions based on fact, rather than hearing and believing only those facts that support our (usually self-serving) pre-existing views.
This troubling sign of the times is one the reasons I came out of retirement this fall to join the Pebble team. The willful distortions and premature judgments that have dogged this project over the past 12 years are every bit as intellectually dishonest as those that have kept Alaskans from safely developing ANWR, and stand as a glaring example of our society's growing inability to reason and make sound judgments based on observable facts.
The other reason I came out of retirement is concern for our state, its economy and citizens. Pebble is a hugely valuable asset that belongs to all Alaskans. Given Alaska's fiscal crisis, and the clear need for economic diversification and good-paying jobs in rural parts of our state, we simply can't afford to turn our back on an opportunity as significant as Pebble without fully and rationally evaluating its potential.
Now, that's not to say the work of those who opposed Pebble in the past is entirely without merit. Opponents like Bob Gillam, Bristol Bay Native Corp. and others have clearly forced the project's developers to rethink their proposal — making it both substantially smaller, and adding significant new environmental safeguards.
Alaskans will get a chance to judge the relative benefits and risks of the new Pebble mine for themselves beginning in a few short weeks, when we submit permit applications to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
What I hope and believe is that Alaskans are ready for a new dialogue on Pebble — one based on a project design proposed by its developers, and on science and other objective facts as vetted and confirmed by federal and state regulatory agencies and the third-party experts they employ. It's time to put the old arguments and alarming rhetoric to bed, and have an honest debate about Pebble.
Undoubtedly, Alaskans will continue to hear that Pebble is the "wrong mine in the wrong place." But I believe they'll come to understand that Pebble is actually a smaller mine than Donlin Gold, a project that's earned widespread support. They'll learn that the 223-square-mile watershed areas in which Pebble's primary facilities are sited produce less than 1/10th of 1 percent of Bristol Bay's famed sockeye.
Now, Pebble's goal is to fully protect even the modest proportion of Bristol Bay salmon that exist near our project. But to suggest that the entirety of Southwest Alaska is the "wrong place" for resource development — a region in which 70 percent of the land base is already locked up in parks, refuges and preserves — is simply not a rational argument.
Alaskans will continue to be told that all mines are environmental disasters. But the rational among us will know the experience and evidence of our home state tells a different story.
All of Alaska's hardrock mines have exemplary track records when it comes to protecting water quality and aquatic habitat. In fact, several actually contributed to improved habitat conditions for fish over those that existed pre-development. Why should Pebble be any different?
In fact — and again, partially in response to the concern and close scrutiny of our critics — Pebble is going above and beyond industry norms in several important areas. We have eliminated the use of cyanide at our mine. We will incorporate an engineered liner in our tailings facility as an additional barrier to protect water quality.
We have eliminated waste rock piles from our design. And we have added several additional engineering features to substantially bolster the factor of safety of our tailings embankment. The facility is being designed as if a fault ran immediately beneath it, when no evidence of such a seismic feature exists.
I have every confidence that the project we take into permitting later this month will be safe, and that we have the scientific knowledge and technological know-how to be successful.
I'm also mindful that Alaskans remain to be convinced. The federal and state permitting process about to commence is the right forum for Alaskans to state their concerns, to ask their questions and to inform themselves — with a reasoned consideration of the facts — whether Pebble is safe and a good project for Alaska.
It's time for a new, more rational dialogue on Pebble. And it begins soon.
Mark Hamilton is president emeritus of the University of Alaska and a retired major general, U.S. Army. He currently serves as executive vice president, external affairs for the Pebble Limited Partnership.
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