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How Can 50 Years of Mining Replace Nearly a Millennium of Subsistence Lifestyle and a Century of Commercial Fishing?

Pebble Mine: Qui Bono?

by KEEGAN BIRCHFIELD and STACY VEGA

Pebble Mine is a hot topic today both in Alaska and nationally.  Proponents and opponents have spent millions to assess impacts both economically and environmentally, but we shouldn’t we take a more holistic approach to impacts?  In a best case scenario, Pebble Mine looks to be one of the greatest revenue generating mines in Alaska and the largest mine in North America.  Who stands to gain most from this enormous undertaking?  Who carries the risk? Who will decide the outcome?

As we know, fishing communities hold the risk of job loss and resource destruction.  However, if this mine works perfectly, what implications remain?  Communities surrounding the mine have little chance of joining the small and highly skilled workforce operating the mine.  Pebble Partnership claims that 80% of Alaska’s current mining workforce comprises Alaskan residents.  This does not include any guarantees for the number of regional employees.  Native groups who rely on subsistence and fisheries resources will receive paltry income benefits.

Proposed Pebble Mine site, near Chikaminuk Lake, Bristol Bay, Alaska.

Proposed Pebble Mine site, near Chikaminuk Lake, Bristol Bay, Alaska.

The Pebble Partnership glorifies its regional capital investment as indirect incentive, but who will maintain this after the mine has closed?  These communities cannot hope to match the upkeep created by millions of dollars worth of infrastructure development.  Finally, land tenure, in and around the mine sites, is held by the State of Alaska leaving few claims for native corporations formed under the ANCSA (Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, 1971).  True benefits to communities around the mine are few and weak while the risk is great.  A small number of professionally trained individuals, short term infrastructure piggy backing, and a brief construction phase bout of employment are the sum benefits for these villages.  Even if none of our fears surrounding the mine come true, nearby communities will receive little real support from the creation of the mine.

The Pebble Partnership claims it has the support of communities in this area, but they remain divided on the issue.  The community support section on its website lists village councils among its supporters, but they have only shown support for continued investigation into the impacts and plausibility of the mine, not implementation. See Aleknagik Traditional Council, Kijik Corporation, King Salmon Tribe, Naknek Native Village Council, etc.  In fact, the EPA’s involvement in this discussion is largely due to petitions from six federally recognized villages submitted in May, 2010 (A Joint Letter – EPA).

Vague terms and poorly defined study areas make their promise of regulation and mitigation difficult to swallow.  The State of Alaska says that no formal meetings occur with the public during the permitting process but plans to confer with local communities.  However, these communities need a stronger voice in the decision surrounding the mine.  Alaska has never failed to permit a mine once permitting is set in motion.  This is a daunting hurdle for marginalized groups that feel the serious, social and cultural altering effects of this mine.

The families living in these communities are trying to speak over millions of dollars worth of interest group/mine propaganda.  The sea of money, large scale policy and nationwide benefit surrounding Pebble Mine is drowning out the voices of those most affected.  And this is not restricted to native communities around the mine.  Thousands of people from all backgrounds work in the Bristol Bay area.

How can 1,000  jobs to Alaskan “residents” compete with approximately 13,000 employed in the fishery today?  How can 50-80 years of mining replace nearly a millennium of subsistence lifestyle and a century of commercial fishing?  These are questions that need to be asked when we consider who decides whether Pebble Mine is put into operation and who is affected.

Keegan Birchfield and Stacy Vega are graduate students at the University of Alaska.