Planned Open-Pit Mine Stirs Environmental Fight
A proposed open-pit copper and gold mine in southwestern Alaska has sparked outrage among some locals, the nearby fishing industry and a coalition of environmentalists, who worry it would carve up the pristine wilderness and poison a large salmon run.
The mine would sit on a lonely spot of tundra near Lake Iliamna, 1,000 square miles of pure freshwater ringed by a handful of native villages, including Nondalton and Iliamna.
The mining company, Canadian-based Northern Dynasty Minerals, is hoping its proposed Pebble Mine will prove to be the richest of its kind in the world, with billions of dollars in copper and gold just waiting to be dug up. It could be perfectly timed for the industrial boom in China.
Northern Dynasty has countered anti-mine ads with its own videos. The mining company says it knows how to keep contaminants sealed up behind earthen dams so that water and land will be unharmed. And, it says, the proposed mine is already providing a boost to the local economy.
The main business around this region used to be hunting and fishing, but now hunting lodges are filling up with mining company workers.
Some natives, like Rick Delkittie, find it all too disruptive.
Delkittie relies on an abundant supply of fish and game. He's afraid of any environmental contamination, even from a mine 12 miles away.
Delkittie's main concern, which is shared by the fishing industry down on Bristol Bay, is water quality. Environmentalists in Anchorage say the mine will inevitably leak acids and trace metals into the salmon streams. The area is home to the largest sockeye salmon run in the world and sustains an entire industry on Bristol Bay.
In little villages like Nondalton, natives eat salmon and other game every night.
Rick Delkittie's freezer is full of plastic bags that contain local food, including black bear and moose meat.
"We have some blueberries, you got some cranberries. Sockeye. This is king salmon," Delkittie's said as he sorted through the frozen bags.
'Probably a Good Thing for Work'
In the village of Iliamna, where Northern Dynasty has built its base of operations, the natives seem willing to give the mine a chance.
Harvey Anelon, president of the village council, said the mine is "probably a good thing for work," as long as it is environmentally safe.
Anelon is also president of the natives' for-profit corporation, which just started a subsidiary to provide services to Northern Dynasty.
Anelon said that there is money to be made.
"If you're a profit-making corporation and you're sitting back and doing nothing, you're hurting yourself," Anelon said.
Northern Dynasty needs to stay on the good side of people like Anelon, who wields much power in the village. Alliances will be key, for example, when it comes time to build an access road across native-owned land.
Some wonder if things are getting too cozy; a state legislator recently accused the company of bribing native leaders.
Anelon has heard the charges.
"Yeah, I wish I had some of that money," Anelon said. "I heard it was a lot. I ain't seen any of that money yet."
At the Northern Dynasty offices in Vancouver, Canada, spokesman Sean Magee rejects the bribery accusation.
"I have to tell you, it's frustrating that hiring local people and having contracts with local business is considered somehow wrong," Magee said.
Magee notes that the opposition is also well funded. Outsiders have paid for anti-mine TV ads and have flown natives like Delkittie to public hearings to oppose the project. Magee says environmentalists want to scare the locals, and he says all the company can do is try to give people a sense of scale.
"Our project would have a footprint of about 15 square miles, we think, give or take," Magee said. "That represents four one-hundredths of one percent of the land base of this region."
In exchange, Magee says, the mine offers this cash-poor wilderness $5 billion dollars in capital investment and a thousand jobs paying an average of $80,000 per year.
The tiny general store in Iliamna already sells "Pebble Mine" sweatshirts — even though the mine hasn't been approved yet. The sense here is that the mine is inevitable, that it's too big not to happen.
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