At USACE scoping meetings in Iliamna Lake region, locals express concerns about Pebble

More than a dozen people testified publicly at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ April 10 Kokhanok scoping meeting about the proposed Pebble Mine. (Photo by Avery Lill/ KDLG)

Early last week, more than 50 people packed into a Kokhanok community building, filling all the seats at rows of folding tables and standing in the back of the room. People from the Kokhanok, Levelock, the Alaska Peninsula Corporation and Bristol Bay Native Corporation were there to suggest resources of concern and alternatives to the proposed Pebble Mine plan to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

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More than two dozen took the microphone to testify. All who testified publicly at the Kokhanok meeting expressed deep apprehension or outright opposition to the Pebble Project’s mining plan.

“Bristol Bay is very unique,” Kokhanok resident John Nelson Jr said. “The proposed Pebble mine poses a tremendous risk to our region. Iliamna Lake is very pristine as well as what I perceive as world-class fishing.”

Greg Andrew Jr. of Levelock voiced unease about the icebreaking ferry the Pebble Limited Partnership plans to run across Iliamna Lake every day to transport mining materials. Many echoed that concern at the Kokhanok meeting and other scoping meetings held last week.

“The icebreaking ferry will directly impact all the communities in the watershed,” Andrew said. “As [Iliamna Lake] is used as an ice highway in the winter, it will no longer be safe to travel between communities, especially during the carnival months. I fear lives will be lost traveling during the winter.”

Andrew and others also raised the concern that the ferry could pose a risk to the lake’s Pacific harbor seal population.

A child at the Newhalen scoping meeting traces the proposed transportation corridor for mining materials. (Photo by Avery Lill/ KDLG)

Two days later, the Army Corps held another scoping meeting on the north side of Iliamna Lake in the village of Newhalen. There, the public testimony was mixed in support and opposition to the mine.

Of the 15 people who testified publically, nine were from Newhalen and Iliamna, adjacent communities that share a road system. Three people from Pedro Bay and three from Dillingham also spoke at the meeting.

Most who spoke from Newhalen and Iliamna were either neutral or in support of the proposed mine. These are among the closest villages to the proposed mine site, which is roughly 17 miles away.

“We are here to let the Army Corps of Engineers know that we would like you guys to allow Pebble to go through with a fair process,” Lorene Anelon said. Anelon is the president of Iliamna Natives Limited, the local native corporation. “What we saw here was an opportunity for people to get jobs, and that’s what we saw as the positive side. Now, I have the same concerns that everybody else is voicing about our subsistence way of life, and we would like to see that protected for the people.”

Economic opportunity was a common theme among those who testified in favor of mining in Bristol Bay.

Margie Olympic lives in Newhalen and has worked for the Pebble Limited Partnership since 2006.

(Courtesy of Pebble Limited Partnership)

“I was raised on a commercial fishing boat in Dillingham,” Olympic said.  “Back in the day, we used to make enough money to support the entire family. Nowadays, fishing can only buy a few groceries or just catch up on bills. I am very grateful that I have a job that I can put food on the table, pay bills and have private insurance. The best part is I don’t have to get up and leave my community. Having the Pebble Partnership with employment would help our communities thrive and support our families.”

Those who flew in from Pedro Bay and Dillingham were opposed to the mine. Their specific apprehensions included potential risks to water quality, commercial fishing, subsistence fishing and hunting.

“I am concerned that loss of water from the streams and the aquifer that feeds the streams will hurt the salmon spawn,” Keith Jensen of Pedro Bay said. “The threat of contamination during the transportation of materials over the road corridor, over the rivers and streams, across the lake is too great. At the end of the mine’s life, we will forever live with the threat of contamination from tailings ponds and dam failures.”

The Corps of Engineers will hold four more scoping meetings this week. Those meetings will be in Nondalton on April 16, Dillingham on April 17, Iguigig on April 18 and Anchorage on April 19. The meetings in Dillingham and Anchorage will not include an opportunity to testify publically before a gathered audience because the USACE anticipates high turnout.

Public comment delivered in-person, by mail and online will play a role in shaping the scope of the Environmental Impact Statement. That EIS will analyze potential detrimental and beneficial effects of the Pebble Project and develop alternatives to the proposed mine plan. The finalized EIS will serve as a tool for federal agencies as they decide whether or not to permit the copper, gold and molybdenum mine in Bristol Bay. The comment period for Pebble Mine’s Environmental Impact Statement closes June 29.