By Adam Clymer
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, August 15, 2006
KEYS POINT, Alaska -- There's a very expensive project in Alaska, and Ted Stevens is against it.
The staunch advocate of the Bridge to Nowhere calls the Pebble Mine, a potential $250 billion copper, gold and molybdenum mine, too great a risk for Alaska to take and vows to stop it, using his clout as chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee.
Is this a sudden greening of the 82-year-old Stevens, the Senate's most intense proponent of drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge?
Stevens and fellow critics talk of a fragile environment or even an "ecosystem" menaced by the mine. But their main argument is that the mine threatens an established economic interest, salmon fishing: commercial, sport and subsistence. At the same time, they are battling tradition. Going back to the Klondikers, mining has had a romantic history in Alaska, and the state regularly approves mining projects while charging minute royalties.
Still, newspaper and even television ads and an energetic campaign against the mine have produced a striking level of opposition in Alaska, whose fragile economy is largely based on federal spending -- a lot of it because of Stevens -- and oil.
Tony Knowles (D), who was governor from 1994 to 2002 and is running again this year, calls the mine a "sword of Damocles" over the region east of Anchorage and northwest of Bristol Bay. Other foes include Robert Gillam, a wealthy financial manager with a fishing lodge in the area, and the Anchorage Daily News.
A hefty coalition of commercial and sport fishing interests and native villages also objects. Even Gov. Frank Murkowski (R), the mine's cheerleader for years, recently began backing off, saying he did not think the state will allow the open-pit mine envisioned by the project.
Bruce Jenkins, chief operating officer of Northern Dynasty, the Canadian company developing the project, conceded surprise at the vehement opposition to a "project that hasn't been defined yet." Jenkins said environmental organizations take a "don't confuse me with the facts" approach, and he said some are unscrupulous.
Jenkins insisted that the project can be undertaken without risk to the sockeye salmon that breed nearby, and he said people should see the final plans and permit applications before making up their mind.
Steve Borrell, executive director of the Alaska Miners Association, agrees and praises Northern Dynasty: "These guys know what they are doing." Borrell calls Gillam's approach "morally wrong," saying he and his allies have scared the people in every village.
"These people are not educated, and they are scared to death," Borrell said.
They are certainly scared. Lucy Weedman, president of the tribal council in New Stuyahok, the first village downstream from the mine site, said: "I hope it never goes through, because our way of life will change. Everybody on this river, we're subsistence users, and rely on our rivers and habitat. It's not possible at all for that mine to be built without contaminating our river. I've not heard of a mine that could be built without contaminating the habitat."
Gillam, a native Alaskan who has financed much of the opposition, makes the economic arguments about commercial and sport fishing and subsistence salmon harvests. But he goes further.
"I think the people of Alaska are evolving into a more balanced opinion on development," he said. "People have understood that there is a huge value to wilderness and habitat" and that Alaska has "all the things that people have lost in other states."
There is also an embattled third force, overshadowed by anti-mine television commercials and the hostility between the pros and the cons. That is a group led by the Lake and Peninsula Borough Assembly, sort of a county council for the vast, nearly roadless area of 30,907 square miles where the mine and its downstream neighbors would lie; its population of 1,823 people translates to one person every 17 square miles. The assembly's position is basically to hope that the project can be done without polluting salmon rivers, because it would mean jobs.
Dan Salmon, an assembly member from Igiugig, said jobs of $15 to $18 per hour on the exploratory phase of the project are already "the only thing that's paying for fuel in this village" of 46 people at $5 per gallon. This year's sockeye run was strong, but fishermen get only 50 cents a pound for what a Whole Foods store might sell for $15.99.
But among these supporters there is concern about environmental impact. "If it can't protect our water and our fish, then we can't support it, even though it obviously would bring some economic benefit," said Igiugig Mayor Glen Alsworth.
Bob Loeffler, a top state Department of Natural Resources official sacked by Murkowski last year over an unrelated issue, is advising the council and said the project has "more environmental challenges than any I've ever seen."
But he insisted that the state's permitting process, which he used to run, will not roll over for the new mine, and he contended that "Alaska's modern mines actually have a very good record with respect to water quality and fish. The notion that's inevitable that any permitted mine will pollute the water and kill the fish is just not true."
Scott Brennan, a spokesman for the opposition as executive director of the Renewable Resources Coalition, is unwilling to trust the state. He says it has never turned down a mining permit.
And Stephen Haycox, a history professor at the University of Alaska at Anchorage, contended that when state officials come to balancing competing concerns, "economic development is going to trump the environment."
Alaskans "have a short-term attitude," he said. "That really exacerbates support for economic development, and I think Pebble will be developed."