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Don't let Pebble Fund grants slip away, Southwest Alaska

  • Author: Scott Woodham
  • Updated: September 27, 2016
  • Published May 4, 2012
TO: Bristol Bay region
CC: State of Alaska
SBJT: Free rural development funds!

Dear Southwest Alaska,

As you may well know, Pebble Partnership announced last week its latest round of grants from "The Pebble Fund," administered by the Alaska Community Foundation. In 2009, the partners behind the controversial mine planned in Southwest Alaska made a 5-year, $5 million commitment to fund community projects and aid renewable resource development across Bristol Bay.

So far, The Pebble Fund has given more than $4 million to a variety of causes -- everything from children's field trips, school facilities and church vans, to streetlights, public utility upgrades, fire trucks and public roads.

This year's biggest single recipient was the Moravian Church in Togiak, which received $110,621 to replace its aging church with volunteer labor. The City of Nondalton will receive $85,000 to build a new road to the airport. Camai Community Health Center will get a new $55,900 X-ray machine by October. Including the awards announced for spring 2012, the Pebble Fund will have distributed $4 million to a variety of Southwest Alaska projects.

The list of Pebble Fund winners, in fact, reads much like a government budget or a list of state or federal grants. Which makes us wonder why the state, with billions in surplus, isn't helping, say ... relocate the sewer lines threatened by beach erosion in Naknek, provide a burn box and waste disposal seminars in Ekuk, bring new technology to every classroom in Togiak, build a new electricity metering system for more efficiency in diesel-powered Pilot Point, or even a new gasoline storage tank for Egegik.

Some people call these grants "hush money," or "bribes," something given in exchange for local support -- or at least silence -- about an unprecedented and highly controversial mining project. Those opposed say the mine poses unacceptable risks to the region's environment and renewable resources. Chief among those, opponents say, are the salmon runs, which for generations have been critical to survival in the region and now constitute the single most lucrative commercial wild-salmon fishery in the world, and provide the basis for superb sportfishing.

Mine opponents say they'll never apply for any of it or have their minds changed. Some even say that such "bribes" are dishonest and amount to an attack on a cherished way of life tied to the land, rivers and oceans. It's a way of life many consider sacred. But we The Concerned think that's a mistake. Sacred doesn't get anyone $10,000 worth of fire extinguishers or a new water main.

By our count, there's still $944,183 left on the table for the final grant cycle in 2013.

If you're not sure how to go about applying for a grant, you're in luck. This year, the Pebble Fund awarded $24,000 for a grant-writing workshop in the Lake and Peninsula Borough. The workshops might be held in communities that have already received Pebble Fund grants. After all, if a community has shown itself receptive, why not stack it higher?

We're concerned, though, that pouring more money into communities will just deepen the resentment of those opposed to the project, resentment such as that expressed by one commentator from Togiak, who wrote to the Bristol Bay Times last year. Since he declared he wouldn't ride in the new church van provided by Pebble Fund in 2011, we The Concerned can't imagine that a new church building is going to change his mind.

The grant-writing workshops are expected to go to communities near the proposed mine site that haven't received or applied for grants yet. Given the level of controversy surrounding the project, even in some of the towns flush with grant money, it's probably not writing skill that's keeping people from applying. It's probably loathing.

But if some people want to spread some money around to try and increase the level of trust, provide for a more prepared local workforce, or even to give the impression that the feared risks aren't so great, so be it. You don't actually have to pledge your support if you take the money. The Concerned would like nothing more than to see the state and borough live up to their obligations in Southwest Alaska, and have Pebble use its grant money to fund unprecedented risk management and the most secure mine waste in the industry.

Besides, the golden goose isn't looking so good lately, and the grant program is about to run out. The CEO of an equity stakeholder in one of the Pebble Partnership companies recently told stockholders that, in his opinion, the current proposal's open-pit mine design is not an option. One Pebble watcher recently argued there's badly inadequate analysis of seismic risk in Pebble's recently released environmental baseline documents. And, well, the EPA is gearing up to conduct its own research on the Bristol Bay watershed before the mine even applies for permits.

Now's the time to start forming those non-profit groups, Lake-n-Pen locals, especially if you live anywhere near the proposed Pebble site. If you don't take the money, someone else will. And we know more than a few of you could use some cash. Living in rural Alaska ain't cheap, for individuals or corporate partnerships with rights to an ore deposit estimated to be worth billions.

The next round of grant applications are due Sept. 1, so if you've got a 501(c)(3), and you are interested in "promot(ing) and enhanc(ing) sustainable and healthy communities and renewable resources within the Bristol Bay region" through the areas of "renewable resources/fish, energy, education and community and economic development," now's the time to get crackin'.

Half a million dollars could fund a mighty nice fisheries observer program for the North Pacific or Bering Sea fleet.

Good luck in the next grant cycle,

The Concerned