We have a lot to look forward to in 2021. Although 2020 was a very challenging year, it was not all bad news. Alaskans achieved an incredible victory with respect to the proposed Pebble Mine. In November, the Alaska District of the Army Corps of Engineers rejected a key federal permit for the project. The Corps denied the permit because it concluded that Pebble would cause significant degradation to the waters and fisheries of Bristol Bay and issuing a permit to Pebble was not in the public’s interest. This was a huge victory. Alaskans should celebrate it.
Despite this positive development, the fight against this ill-conceived and irresponsible development project is not over. The Pebble Limited Partnership (PLP) has vowed to appeal the Corps’ decision. It is therefore incumbent on Alaskans not to soon forget the lessons we learned in 2020 about Pebble and PLP.
Bristol Bay is home to one of the world’s greatest remaining wild sockeye salmon fisheries. On average, more than 50 million fish return to Bristol Bay’s waters each year and the commercial harvest often exceeds 30 million fish. The commercial fisheries support approximately 4,000 fishing-related jobs in Bristol Bay and $500 million in regional economic activity, and more than $1.2 billion nationally. These fisheries also support a world-class tourism industry, a significant number of additional in-region jobs, and $100 million in local economic activity. Most importantly, the fish harvested from the region’s waters have fed Bristol Bay’s people and been its cultural foundation for thousands of years.
All of these were saved in 2020 because the Army Corps followed the science, listened to Alaskans, and rightly concluded that a large open pit mine like Pebble should not be built at the headwaters of the Nushagak and Kvichak River systems.
Revisiting what we learned about Pebble and PLP in 2020, first and foremost PLP is a company that Alaskans cannot trust. In September, the “Pebble Tapes,” which consisted of recordings of former Pebble CEO Tom Collier and current CEO of Pebble parent company Northern Dynasty Minerals Ron Thiessen, exposed the myriad ways in which the companies misled regulators, elected officials and the Alaska public: (1) the 20-year mine plan submitted to the Corps of Engineers for permitting is a gateway to a much larger and damaging mining operation; (2) they are relying on supposed political influence, including a close friendship with Gov. Mike Dunleavy, to move the project forward; and (3) they expect the state of Alaska to fund much of the necessary infrastructure costs. These recordings (rightly) cost Collier his job.
Pebble also continued to rely on a false narrative that the mine can help America build mineral resource independence. This claim defies reality. PLP’s intent has always been to ship the ore extracted at Pebble to Asia for smelting. As early as 2017, Thiessen told investors, “You can’t find a better spot to build and develop a mine... it’s very close to tidewater, which gives us good access to the ocean and shipment to Asian smelters.” This is a point PLP Executive VP for Public Affairs Mark Hamilton confirmed this past September, when he told members of the Kenai and Soldotna Chambers of Commerce that the minerals extracted from the Pebble deposit would be shipped to the “Far East.”
Lastly, PLP continued to demonstrate that it is more focused on peddling political influence than advancing good science. Federal disclosure records show that the company spent more than $2 million on federal lobbying in 2020 alone. PLP’s efforts to buy influence rather than to earn trust have clearly not abated.
Still, PLP persists in its efforts to move Pebble forward, promising to soon appeal the Army Corps’ rejection of its permit application. Alaskans must not lose sight of the threat that Pebble poses to Bristol Bay. We still have work to do - Bristol Bay needs enduring safeguards and additional sustainable economic opportunities to augment the region’s robust fishing and tourism industries.
We may be called on to raise our voices once again against Pebble in 2021. For now, let’s take the lessons of 2020 to heart and celebrate this tremendous victory for the people of Bristol Bay and the salmon that sustain them.
Russell S. Nelson is a lifelong resident of Dillingham, and has been a Bristol Bay Native Corporation Director for 16 years. He currently serves as vice-chair of the Board.
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