Pebble Mine Development Polarizes Alaska

fromKDLG

In southwest Alaska, officials are counting votes on a controversial initiative to stop an open-pit copper and gold mine. If passed, the initiative could stop the developers from getting permits they need to start digging at Pebble Mine. The mine's location, near the spawning grounds for the largest sockeye salmon runs in the world, worries conservation groups, commercial fishermen and sport fishers.

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Today in southwest Alaska, officials are counting votes on an initiative to stop a massive, open-pit gold and copper mine. The mine is located near spawning grounds for the largest sockeye salmon runs in the world. The Pebble Mine is polarizing opinion even before the first precious metal comes out of the ground, as Daysha Eaton, of member station KDLG in Dillingham, reports.

DAYSHA EATON, BYLINE: The only way to get to the site of the Pebble Mine is by helicopter. It touches down on a hill overlooking state land about 200 miles southwest of Anchorage. We're surrounded by rolling tundra threaded by glistening streams. The Pebble Partnership, the group developing the mine, has drilled more than 1,200 exploratory holes.

BUD VERSIER: We're at 3,750 feet right now.

EATON: Bud Versier is a mine worker.

VERSIER: We start off the hole with fresh water, and we mix a little bit of drilling mud and we pump it down the hole. Otherwise it would get too hot and you couldn't drill.

EATON: The piece of desolate tundra could be worth billions of dollars in copper, gold and the precious metal molybdenum, used in electronics manufacturing. A citizen's initiative in the borough closest to the mine site wants to end the drilling. One of the people trying to stop the development is Katherine Carscallan, who lives downriver from the proposed mine. She's a third generation fisherman who also works for a conservation group.

She created a YouTube video showing photos of green and orange goo oozing from an old drill hole at the site with captions explaining that Pebble is already polluting. The video is set to a song by Zebra Head.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE SET-UP")

ZEBRA HEAD: (Singing) Whoa, lie to me. Don't say it didn't mean anything ...

KATHERINE CARSCALLAN: Well, these are pictures that I took up on the Pebble deposit. My co-worker and I flew up and we came across one of the reclaimed drill sites.

EATON: Recently, a superior court judge ruled that conservation groups had not provided enough evidence to prove Pebble was already polluting.

PETE ANDREW: A crane, all five species of salmon.

EATON: And where'd you catch the salmon?

ANDREW: Right down here on the Wood River.

EATON: Pete Andrew is giving me a tour of his freezer. He's a commercial fisherman. Andrew's also an Alaska Native who fishes for his own food.

ANDREW: This is the last place in the Western world that man hasn't wrecked yet. And I'll do whatever it takes to stop it.

EATON: Environmentalists and commercial fishermen have received a lot of help from Bob Gillam. He's a sport fisher and widely considered the richest man in Alaska. Gillam's favorite place to drop his line is at his private lodge, nearby the proposed Pebble Project. Gillam put up about $400,000 dollars to get the initiative on the ballot.

BOB GILLAM: This mine will dig up miles of salmon-producing creeks and rivers. And that's exactly what the Save Our Salmon Initiative is all about.

EATON: While the mine could hurt some fishermen it could benefit Alaska Natives living in villages close to the site. Trefon Angasan is with the group which represents the Alaska Natives closest to Pebble. He opposes the initiative for several reasons.

TREFON ANGASAN: There are no jobs and schools are closing. And once the schools close the people move away and the village doesn't grow and then people have lost their language. They've lost their culture.

EATON: Environmental tradeoffs may be needed, Angasan says, because the jobs that would be created by the mine may be the key to keeping the remote Alaska Native villages and culture alive. Regardless of whether the initiative passes, the losing side will likely challenge the result in the Alaska Supreme Court.

For NPR News, I'm Daysha Eaton in Dillingham, Alaska.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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