For years, residents and members of the Iliamna Village Council, the governmental entity for the village of Iliamna in Southwest Alaska, a village close to the proposed Pebble Mine, have claimed neutrality. For years, they’ve told anybody who would listen that they aren’t for or against the controversial mine, but rather that they, unique among residents and groups in the area, are trying to brush past the huge and confusing politics associated with the mine and are waiting for the science to lead them in the right direction.
The mine, believed to be the largest undeveloped gold and copper mine on Earth, which also sits on the headwaters of the Bristol Bay and the largest wild sockeye salmon run on Earth, is a magnet for conflicting reports and scientific assessment, much of which passes above the head of journalists and the public.
Because of all of this — as well as the lightning-rod nature of the project — reporters like me have long given deference to those who would be living in the mine’s backyard. They have more to gain, and as much to lose as any citizen involved in the fight, many thought. At the very least, many have bought into the argument that the village is a responsible body which should be conferred with when making decisions about the area.
But earlier this month the village made a colossal mistake that threatens to undermine its credibility when dealing with issues involving the permitting of the Pebble Mine. It also undermines its claims of responsibility and neutrality, and gives substance to the long-standing charge that the village and the council have been “bought and paid for” by the Pebble Partnership.
Here’s the gist: the Environmental Protection Agency, which has the power to shut the project down, submitted a report in April about the effects of the mine on the area’s waterways and its salmon, called the Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment Report. The assessment doesn’t bode well for Pebble. The EPA said that the proposed gold and copper mine, which also sits in the headwaters of the largest wild salmon run in the world, could devastate that salmon population.
The Pebble Partnership, a joint venture of British mining giant Anglo American PLC and Vancouver, Canada based Northern Dynasty Minerals Ltd., objected strenuously to the assessment, calling it “biased, manipulative and contrary to EPA’s own guidelines.”
The five-member Iliamna Village Council also opposed the EPA’s assessment and requested that its own, handpicked scientist review EPA’s work and prepare comments to the EPA for the council’s submission.
It hired Dr. Donald Macalady to do so. Macalady is a professor emeritus of chemistry and geochemistry at the Colorado School of Mines, and the school’s previous director of the Center for Environmental Risk.
Macalady’s report was damning, to put it mildly. Among other things, it said the mine would likely eliminate the salmon spawning runs “in a large portion of the area’s watersheds,” and that this “elimination will be essentially irreversible.”
With the fish so go the wildlife. With the fish and the wildlife so go the area’s primary economy, subsistence lifestyle and culture.
What will be left of the area “is a legacy of scarred countryside and continued risk of degradation of water resources,” Macalady wrote.
“You are being asked to make a choice between undeniable short-term economic benefit at the cost of a completely altered environment and little hope of long term benefit,” he wrote.
The president of the village council, Sue Anelon, submitted the report to the EPA as a public comment without reading it. When she, or someone, did get around to reading it, the council, apparently, was aghast. It asked to retract the report. The EPA has declined to do so.
The council is made up of five members, four of whom appear to be related and at least four of whom are employed now or have been employed by the Pebble Partnership. This has for years opened them and the village up to charges that they have been unduly influenced by Pebble’s money.
Prior to Pebble coming in to punch holes looking for gold, the Iliamna area was impoverished. The 2010 census counted a total of 299 residents in both Iliamna and its sister village Newhalen. Out of those, only 26 had commercial fishing permits, and only 22 fished those permits, according to the Alaska’s Commercial Fisheries Entry Commission. The estimated gross earnings for both villages from commercial salmon fishing in Bristol Bay was about $1 million.
A large majority of the people in the Bristol Bay region oppose the mine. Bristol Bay Native Corporation, the regional native corporation that has 9,000 shareholders, voted in 2011 to oppose it. However, the closer you get to the mine and the employment opportunities that it provides, the less strenuous the opposition. Indeed, compared to some other villages in Southwest Alaska, Iliamna is booming. Trucks bearing Pebble’s logo zoom around the village. There’s a store with stocked shelves. People have money in their pockets and jobs abound.
Anelon didn’t return a phone call requesting comment, but she did talk to the Associated Press, who quoted her as saying that the materials Macalady produced “stray a significant distance from” the council’s position.
Anelon, who has long claimed to be open to different scientific assessments of the mine, just assumed that Macalady “was all on the same page as the village,” she said.
That page, apparently, is only one that will support the mine.
Here are more key points from Macalady’s report:
- Not taking into account mining accidents, the mine’s footprint would result in 56 miles of stream channel to be “eliminated, blocked, or dewatered…along with the destruction of about 5 square miles of wetland area.”
- “Groundwater flow in the region will be diminished and the positive effects of this flow (on salmon spawning) eliminated.”
- Copper and other metal contamination into the water is “inevitable…This contamination could be expected to enter the watersheds immediately adjacent to the mine site, potentially rendering additional miles of stream and river unacceptable for salmon spawning.
- The mine would alter water temperatures, which is “likely to adversely influence the suitability of these waters for successful spawning.”
He ends his report with some possible suggestions for an economic future, among them asking that the government and groups opposed to the mine assist in establishing an ecological research and training institute, which would provide employment for people in the region.
Contact Amanda Coyne at firstname.lastname@example.org