For nearly a decade, the proposed Pebble Mine in Bristol Bay, Alaska has been a contentious and hotly debated topic. A year ago, many were convinced the mine would never actually go through, largely because the natural resources the mine would threaten are so vital to the economy and culture in Alaska. Unfortunately, the threat of the mine being implemented is rising once again.
The EPA posted a news release on July 11 announcing a proposal to withdraw Pebble Mine restrictions it had filed under the Clean Water Act – a decision that essentially halted planning of the mine in 2014. If finalized, this proposed determination would restrict discharges of dredged or fill material into the watershed from mining the Pebble deposit.
The EPA is seeking public comments on whether or not to withdraw its July 2014 Clean Water Act Proposed Determination. The outcome of this public comment, which closes October 17, 2017, could determine whether or not construction of the mine is a real threat. To get an expert opinion on this issue, we interviewed Norman Van Vactor, a longtime participant in Bristol Bay fisheries and current CEO of the Bristol Bay Economic Development Corporation, to ask about the chances of this actually happening.
“The withdrawal proposal comes out of a settlement with Pebble Limited Partnership that took place on May 11, whose subsidiaries own the mineral claims to the pebble deposit,” said Van Vactor. “The EPA is consulting with federally-recognized Bristol Bay region tribal governments and Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act Regional and Village Corporations that own lands in the Bristol Bay watershed.”
According to Van Vactor, the incentives have nothing to do with the mine being built – instead, they have to do with getting a permit. “Junior mining companies have a history of identifying a client, pumping them up, getting a major mining company involved to make a financial investment, then cashing in their chips and moving on,” he said. In fact, there are very few projects that move from the prospect to development stage. There is a gambling component involved – “gold fever can be a real illness,” said Van Vactor.
The process of working to secure a major mining company typically includes exploring potential mining sites – an activity that can be environmentally damaging in and of itself. When asked if the companies that are exploring have been held accountable for the damage they’ve caused thus far, Van Vactor said the damage they’ve incurred is more significant than they are willing to admit, and includes leaking well heads, campsites not cleaned up, and drainage from well sites inadequately capped. “For the first time ever, the governor of Alaska has made companies somewhat accountable for their actions” by telling those companies they have some cleanup to do in order to satisfy the permit they were granted the year prior. “Most of us feel like it’s not far enough,” he said.
Van Vactor has been involved in the Pebble project since its beginning. In the past, he worked with a resource coalition that conducted a statewide survey to see where the state of Alaska and the public were leaning. Back then, “most people were aware of [the Pebble mine] and were against it; the issue was that most people didn’t know much about it,” he said. Alaska is a highly developmental state, so if the average Alaskan knew nothing about a development project, “their gut reaction was to support it.” Since then, and with all the publicity, “the same polls show strong concern about and opposition to the project.” Polls such as these really impact politicians – “when they know more people oppose than support a project, they are less inclined to support legislation that would ease the permit process,” said Van Vactor, “particularly given that Alaska has a fish first policy.”
Van Vactor finds this monopolizing frustrating. “Given the current administration in DC, what happened with the EPA is no different than the negative trend that this current administration is on. I never thought a president had that much power – he has been able to disrupt and create enough chaos and carnage, and the EPA is losing really good scientists as a result. The halting of Pebble mine construction was undone by the new administration,” said Van Vactor.
Despite this new development, Van Vactor doesn’t believe the Pebble mine will ever be built. The EPA “bowed to political pressure to have a comment period, but we don’t expect anything else more than a 90-day comment period.” As a result, “we are dusting off notes and re-iterating concerns about this,” he said. “If you talk to legislators now, they roll their eyes and say ‘here we go again’.” “The tradeoffs for what would happen to the resource in this region are too great – at the end of day, people will stand in front of bulldozers and say ‘over my dead body’; the resentment about this project is really significant.”