Bristol Bay braces for long awaited Pebble Mine plans

In May, Pebble Mine opponents held a rally and press conference in Dillingham, just ahead of EPA announcing its intention to reverse course on preemptive restrictions proposed during the Obama Administration. (KDLG photo)

This week, Pebble Limited Partnership is expected to publicly unveil the outline for a plan to mine the copper and gold deposit northwest of Iliamna. Those who have been briefed say the company’s plans call for a much smaller mine than discussed before, and appear to address many of the concerns raised by Bristol Bay residents and fishermen, environmentalists and the EPA.

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As a region, the Bristol Bay watershed has largely opposed Pebble, perhaps in increasing numbers, for the past decade. Much of the effort focused on pushing President Obama’s EPA to finalize preemptive Section 404(c) Clean Water Act restrictions that would have blocked permitting of Pebble Mine’s dredge and fill activities. Pebble filed several lawsuits, alleging in one that EPA and anti-mine activists were colluding to reach a predetermined outcome. That lawsuit found traction in the court of U.S. District Judge H. Russel Holland, who agreed to an injunction against further EPA effort until the case was resolved.

President Trump’s EPA agreed to settle the lawsuit with Pebble, allowing the company to enter into a normal permitting process as defined by the National Environmental Policy Act. A caveat was added that the company must file for permits within 30 months.

Ahead of CEO Tom Collier’s presentation of Pebble’s plans to the Resource Development Council in Anchorage Thursday morning, the company has been briefing some stakeholders ahead of time.

Nathan Hill, the manager of the Lake and Peninsula Borough, has seen the 150-plus slide PowerPoint presentation with the company’s estimates about the size and scope of the project, and what it will mean for nearby communities.

The Pebble deposit sits within the Borough’s boundaries.

“The position of the Borough is neutral,” Hill said. “We are tasked with approving permits regarding any development in the Borough, so for us to have anything but a neutral stance would not make our permitting process a fair one.”

Hill is Alaska Native, a BBNC shareholder and member of his local tribe. He is a lifelong commercial and subsistence fisherman who lives in Kokhanok, along the shores of Iliamna Lake. Hill knows as well as anybody the stakes involved, and depending on the success, flop or failure of Pebble, the borough he manages stands to gain or lose more than anywhere else in Bristol Bay. The Lake and Pen Borough pulls in roughly $1.5 million in taxes from the commercial sockeye harvest each year, a revenue stream that depends on a healthy fishery. But the Borough will also have some taxing authority over the project, if it’s developed, that could reap millions annually.

A Pebble Mine might create more jobs and contracts for village corporations, but there will inevitably be disruption to today’s way of life and potential for a wide range of environmental risk to Lake and Pen communities. Amidst a tense dialogue given to backbiting and hyperbole, Hill said his assembly and mayor have tasked him to stay informed and meet with Pebble as needed.

“To ignore facts and reality doesn’t do anything to satisfy that,” Hill said. “In my opinion, if you want to have good information, you need to be open to that information. That’s what I’m trying to do, keep apprised of all arguments and all information, and make myself available to do the job of borough manager.”

In the past, the Lake and Peninsula Borough has been targeted by Pebble Mine opponents, notably Alaska’s wealthiest resident Bob Gillam, who funded ballot initiatives, lawsuits and propped up George Jacko Jr. as a candidate against incumbent Mayor Glen Alsworth, Sr. The Borough has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars fighting what they claim are frivolous lawsuits, and Gillam’s standing with wider Pebble opponents suffered on account of his relationship with Jacko. A former state senator, Jacko’s reputation for harassing young women stretches far beyond the claims made against him during an official investigation while he was in office in the early 90s.

Downstream from Pebble’s deposit, down the Koktuli to the Mulchatna to the world-famous king salmon producing Nushagak River sits Dillingham, the largest hub in Bristol Bay and center of the region’s loudest opposition to Pebble.

“I’ll fight Pebble till my last breath,” H. Robin Samuelsen said.

Also a lifelong commercial fisherman, Samuelsen is a chief with the Curyung Tribal Council, a director with the Bristol Bay Native Corporation, and the chairman of the Bristol Bay Economic Development Corporation’s board of directors. Few if any have had near the influence over Bristol Bay’s past quarter century as Samuelsen, and few if any are as prepared to lead this fight from the front as he is. But he is not choosing to engage with Pebble directly, at least for now.

“Not having seen the plan, I will still oppose the Mine. It has many ramifications that could affect the commercial fishery, sport fishery, and subsistence fishery out here,” Samuelsen said.

Samuelsen said others who answer to him have seen Pebble’s plans, and he is concerned to hear that the company may focus on the Pebble West deposit which drains to the Koktuli River. He and many others opposed to Pebble have long alleged the risks from hypothetical mining scenarios that may now be less applicable, and he and others have long called for Pebble to lay its cards on the table. Thus, he is willing to take a look at what the company is proposing.

“I think there’s room for us to invite them, they don’t have to invite us, we’ll invite them, to look at what they’re planning on doing. It isn’t just a ‘hell no’, we’re monitoring the situation, and I believe that the super majority of Bristol Bay is going to continue to oppose that Mine,” Samuelsen said.

The United Tribes of Bristol Bay, a political advocacy group representing 14 tribal councils in the region, has taken a lead position in opposing Pebble. A UTBB contingent has traveled to nearly every village in the region to shore up support ahead of Pebble’s rollout and an EPA visit, and they protested outside the Pebble advisory committee’s August meeting in Anchorage. They turned down an invite to join and even address that meeting, and Executive Director Alannah Hurley said will continue to refuse discussions that presume a mine will be built, no matter the size.

“We have known from the very beginning of this threat exactly what is up there. We know from their own presentations to their shareholders and to the investment community exactly the type, size and location of the Pebble deposit. Those are things that cannot change,” Hurley said. “The impact of that type of mining on our watershed has not changed. Nothing has changed when it comes to the Pebble Mine other than politics.”

Hurley said the residents UTBB has heard from are deeply frustrated to still be talking about a mine they have opposed for a decade.

Pebble has a few supporters in the region who have mainly voiced the importance of the jobs and income that, especially around Iliamna Lake, other organizations have failed to create. Then there are others who are more open to see Pebble vetted normally, Lisa Reimers said. As CEO of the Iliamna Development Corporation and Iliamna Natives Limited board member, Reimers has worked with Pebble in the past and earned the ire of mining opponents for doing so. She hopes for an open, robust debate about what is at stake, but not does not believe her detractors will come to the table.

“To me it was a perfect example when they were having this [Pebble advisory committee] meeting and they invited United Tribes in, or the people that were protesting, they refused to go into the meeting to have a discussion with this new advisory committee Pebble put together,” Reimers said. “To me, nothing has changed. If anything it’s gotten worse with the protesting and animosity.”

IDC and INL will take a hard look at Pebble’s plans and see if it makes sense for the area, said Reimers, adding that Iliamna leadership has not taken a firm position in support of or against the project. This past summer was a difficult one, she said, discussing how contract work with Pebble did not go smoothly, and adding that IDC shareholders and others in Iliamna were left wondering if this mining company can be trusted any more than the rest.

A Pebble office in Iliamna in April, 2016. (KDLG photo)

Reimers asked the Bristol Bay Native Corporation board to help produce non-Pebble related work and contracts, if the board is to remain insistent against the Mine. No other options were provided, she said.

The BBNC board of directors spearheaded an ugly fight against one of its own directors when she signed onto Pebble’s advisory committee this spring. Kim Williams of Dillingham was first ousted from her role as director of Nunamta Aulukestai, then BBNC’s board threatened a recall vote with the full backing of the deep-pocketed corporation to unseat her. Williams, one of the proposed mine’s loudest opponents, backed down and resigned from the Pebble advisory committee in June.

After that, her father William Johnson agreed to join, as did Alexanna Salmon from Igiugig. Neither are known to give into bullying, though Salmon said the move probably cost her a few friendships for now.

Salmon is opposed to the Mine, as she believes most of her community is too, but she wants to be informed and perhaps affect outcomes from the inside.

“This Pebble project is located on state land that has been designated for mineral development, and I have no control over that property or its status besides being a single resident voter of this state,” Salmon said. “This is a project that is in our backyard, it will be life-transforming for our community, and if there’s an opportunity to learn what they’re planning, I want to be at that table. And it’s not for me, it’s for all of the future generations.”

By late this week, stakeholders and the public should finally get a first glimpse of Pebble’s mining plans and the company’s estimated impacts on the local environment and economy. The rollout will start in Anchorage and Fairbanks, but Pebble said they will bring the conversation to the region in the months ahead.

Next week the EPA is coming back to Bristol Bay again too, to see what’s on the minds of folks who live at the crossroads of the world’s greatest sockeye salmon fishery and one of the largest copper and gold deposits on earth.

This article was corrected to state that Lisa Reimers is a board member of Iliamna Natives Limited, not Iliamna Village Council as originally written.