Proposed Alaska Mine Faces Fierce Opposition

In Alaska's picturesque Bristol Bay region, developers are looking to build an enormous copper and gold mine. They promise the effort will be carried out in an environmentally responsible way — and provide area jobs. But fisherman, conservationists and native groups have joined efforts to thwart the mine, fearing it will pollute fish and wildlife. Melissa Block talks about the battle for Bristol Bay with reporter Daysha Eaton of member station KDLG in Dillingham, Alaska.

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MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

In Alaska, a proposal to build North America's largest open pit mine is being challenged with a local ballot initiative. The ballot measure targets plans for a gigantic copper and gold mine. Opponents say the mine would ruin the ecology of one of the world's most productive wild salmon fisheries in Bristol Bay. Daysha Eaton, a reporter with member station KDLG in Dillingham, Alaska, has been following the fight over the pebble mine and she joins me now. Daysha, welcome.

DAYSHA EATON: Hi, Melissa.

BLOCK: What is the scale of this proposed mine? How big would it be?

EATON: Well, it's hard to say exactly how big it would be. The mine area, it spans over 150 square miles, but they don't have a mine plan yet. And so, until we see a mine plan, we don't really know how big the mine would be.

BLOCK: And the value of the minerals and the metals that are expected from this site, it's huge.

EATON: It's huge. It's billions. The mine site is said to hold an estimated 80 billion pounds of copper, more than a hundred million ounces of gold, and about five billion pounds of molybdenum.

BLOCK: And the fight over the proposed mine has to do with the ecology around Bristol Bay. Explain why this area is so valued.

EATON: Well, activists who are fighting against the mine are very concerned because they say that the mine site is at the headwaters of Bristol Bay. Now, the headwaters is kind of a political word to a lot of people around here. Nobody really knows what that mean or wants to agree that that's where the mine is. But it is near a lot of the streams that feed into rivers that run into Bristol Bay. And that's salmon spawning ground.

They're still doing environmental studies of the site to find out whether or not salmon are actually spawning nearby the site, and we're waiting on that information now.

BLOCK: And the mine has been a source of controversy for quite a long time now. Who's lined up in opposition to it?

EATON: Well, the mine has brought together a unique group of people who've never really worked together before - commercial fishermen, sport fishermen, Alaska natives groups and corporations, and conservation groups, including Trout Unlimited. They're very active here. There are several conservation groups throughout Alaska and the U.S. who are now jumping on board.

Bob Gillam, he's considered one of the richest men - if not the richest - businessmen in Alaska. He has been behind this SOS Initiative. And it came out in the Alaska Daily News this morning that he was the sole funder of the group that's behind the SOS Initiative.

BLOCK: SOS standing for?

EATON: Save Our Salmon.

BLOCK: And on the other side, who's in support?

EATON: In support of the mine are people who are pro-development. The Pebble Partnership which is behind the mine, of course, is for it. And anybody who really wants development and resource development, in particular, in the sate is behind it.

BLOCK: And where do the native groups line up on this? Would some be saying, look, there are jobs here, we need these jobs?

EATON: Yes, the Alaska native group that are up closest to the mine development, near Lake Iliamna, they're on board with the mining operation for the most part because they're benefitting already from jobs and development in the area. But the groups, the Alaska native groups that are closer to Bristol Bay, the Alaska Native corporations are opposed to the mine and throughout Alaska.

BLOCK: Now, let's talk about the local ballot measure against the mine. It's been hotly contested. Ballots, I gather, are due next week. Does the ballot initiative have teeth, and what happens if it were to pass, and will there be a whole lot more litigation to follow?

EATON: I think you can be sure there'll be more litigation to follow. The initiative doesn't have a lot of teeth. The people will be able to say whether or not they want the mine by how they vote on the initiative, but the courts can go ahead and say that it's not constitutional, if they so choose.

BLOCK: I've been talking with Daysha Eaton of member station KDLG in Dillingham, Alaska, about the proposed Pebble Mine in Bristol Bay.

Daysha, thanks so much.

EATON: Thank you.

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