Public Lands & Waters photo

There is nothing like a good anti-federal-government advertising campaign to rally support for, well, almost anything. In this time of Internal Revenue Service scandals and accusations that the Environmental Protection Agency has charged so-called “conservative” groups for Freedom of Information Act requests that they handed over to environmental groups for free, the time was ripe for a smart advertising professional to tap in to the zeitgeist and try, yet again, to sell a highly skeptical American public on the Pebble Project–a huge gold and copper mine proposed by two foreign mining corporations to be built on public lands in the headwaters of Bristol Bay, Alaska.

On June 4, Northern Dynasty Minerals, Limited, a Vancouver, Canada-based corporation that owns 50 percent of the Pebble Project, ran an ad in the Washington Post and on various political websites that demands an end to what it calls EPA’s “black box bias” against the mine. The ad also claims that the EPA is manipulating public opinion and denying science in response to the results of the EPA’s 14 month-long comprehensive Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment (BBWA). The EPA’s assessment shows that the Pebble Project does indeed threaten the greatest salmon fishery on earth (a $500 million industry annually) and the estimated 14,000 jobs that depend upon it, and will industrialize one of America’s wildest and most pristine expanses of public land, which would forever changing the culture and economy of the 7,500 people, mostly Native Americans, who now call it home.

I’m not sure what the Canadian mining executives thought the report should have said. The Pebble Project would build the first road, first power-generating facility, and first deep-water port in the region, opening up mining opportunities on tens of thousands of acres of public land in the trackless headwaters of the Nushagak and Kvichak Rivers. The Pebble mine alone would be North America’s largest open pit mine, using 35 billion gallons of water a year taken from groundwater, from the Koktuli River, and from Talarik Creek (that feeds the extraordinarily pure freshwater Lake Iliamna, home to some of the world’s largest rainbow trout). At the very least the Pebble Project would obliterate between 55 and 87 miles of salmon streams and rivers, and attempt to contain–forever–10 billion tons of waste rock and contaminated water behind earthen dams 740 feet high and 4.3 miles long. That’s all bound to have some environmental effects, many of which are described in the EPA’s doorstopper of a report.

In a June 4 press release, Northern Dynasty President & CEO Ronald Thiessen said this of the EPA’s report:
“We believe the Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment process to be a cynical effort to manipulate public perception about a project before it has been proposed or undergone federal and state permitting. And we believe the draft BBWA to be a fundamentally biased report that should have no bearing on the future of America’s most important undeveloped mineral resource.”

But if you are not Northern Dynasty, or the other half of the partnership, British mining giant Anglo American PLC, the EPA’s assessment seems pretty reasonable. Jason Metrokin, President and CEO of Bristol Bay Native Corporation, commenting on the BBWA to the Alaska Business Monthly in May, said, “BBNC appreciates EPA’s scientific effort in creating its Draft Watershed Assessment, which provides Bristol Bay residents an unprecedented resource for reviewing current scientific knowledge about our region and helping determine the sustainability of potential development. What we have read so far suggests that EPA’s draft findings regarding mining the Pebble deposit largely align with our own: The science exists now to show that the proposed Pebble mine does not fit with a sustainable future for Bristol Bay, and should not be allowed to proceed.”

Former Republican Alaska State Senator Rick Halford predicted Northern Dynasty’s attack on the Watershed Assessment in a November 2012 Alaska Business Monthly:
“As Pebble’s backers have done throughout, they will attack the process and the EPA rather than looking at the facts. But the fact is, the Pebble Mine is a bad deal for Alaska. Pebble will never be able to account for the many risks associated with the mine, and the peer review report makes these risks abundantly clear. The time to protect Bristol Bay is now.”

Trout Unlimited, which has been involved in the conflict over the Pebble Project since the mine was first proposed, praised the assessment in an April 26 blog post on the organization’s Alaska Program website.

“The science is clear: developing Pebble Mine will harm salmon and destroy streams even if nothing ever goes wrong at the mine,” Tim Bristol, director of the program, said. “Pebble is far bigger and more threatening to renewable resource jobs than any other mine proposal in Alaska, and it’s planned for the worst location possible: the headwaters of Bristol Bay. Clearly, the time for action to protect Bristol Bay under the Clean Water Act is now.”

Although Northern Dynasty’s Ronald Thiessen refutes the EPA’s report on the damage his project will do is inaccurate because it’s based on a “hypothetical mine,” that’s really all anybody has to work with, due to the mining companies keeping their actual plans to themselves.

“As a policymaker who spends most of my days saying there is a process we need to follow, I have a tough time telling the state to chop it (the Pebble Project) off at the knees. But I’ll tell you one thing: Pebble isn’t doing itself any favors by not giving more definition to its plans,” Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) told Laine Welch of the Anchorage Daily News. “They have documents to the moon, but no images or mine plans. The best thing Pebble could do is lay it on the table so we have something real to deal with.”

What is most interesting about Northern Dynasty’s ad is not just the image of our EPA depicted as a “black box,” linking the Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment with the current government scandals. More interesting is that Northern Dynasty feels compelled to take out such an ad, which is presumably very expensive. I look at that ad, in support of a project that I oppose, and I feel very, very proud of my country. In almost any other nation on earth, giant foreign mining companies would have no need whatsoever to pay for and run such an ad. The mine permits would be paid for in some unpublicized handshake deal, and the mining would begin, and to the Devil with the people, the salmon, and the rest of the consequences. There would be no functioning EPA to rail against. My country is still in the fight to give its citizens a say over what happens to them and their lands and waters and fisheries, and right has every chance to prevail.

Due to the controversial nature of the Pebble Project, the public comment period has been extended to June 30.