This Pebble Is Stirring A Whole Lot Of Controversy In Alaska

Political lines are being drawn in Alaska over the proposed Pebble Mine, a hugely controversial project to build an open-pit gold and copper mine in the Bristol Bay watershed. The watershed is one of the last unspoiled salmon fisheries in the world. The state's Democratic senator, Mike Begich, is in a tough re-election race this year, and he's just come out against the mine. But the mine's proponents complain that environmentalists — and the EPA — are prejudging a project that hasn't even applied for formal permits yet.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block. Political pressure is mounting against Pebble Mine. That's a big gold and copper mine proposed for an unspoiled part of southwest Alaska. Developers haven't yet applied for a permit. And NPR's Martin Kaste reports one prominent politician from the state has just come out against the mine.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: This mining plan has been in the works for about a decade now, and a partnership of international mining companies has spent about $600 million researching the Pebble site, and fending off criticism from environmental groups. Now, it seems the developers may also have to fend off the EPA.

MIKE HEATWOLE: We have a biased political report that's intended to harm our project, and that's unfortunate.

KASTE: That's Mike Heatwole. He's the mine developers' spokesman. He's talking about a scientific study that the EPA released last week. Three years in the making, the study has been eagerly awaited as a signal of whether the federal government might try to stop the mine. Now the study is out and it says mining poses a significant risk to the unspoiled salmon fisheries of Bristol Bay. The developers call the study rushed and flawed. While the study is not a policy decision, it has spurred Alaska Senator Mark Begich to announce that he is now against the mine.

SENATOR MARK BEGICH: Swapping off a non-renewable resource for a renewable resource, which is our fisheries, I think is not the right kind of swap.

KASTE: Begich is a Democrat in a Republican state, and he's facing a tough election this year. The mine is so controversial nationally, he was likely to face constant questions about it, especially from political donors in the Lower 48. Now that he's picked sides, he risks being painted as anti-development back home. But Begich says the voters likely agree with him.

BEGICH: Well, I can tell you that it's 10 to one coming into my office against the mine, there's no question about that. I mean, Alaskans, at least the people who contacted me, they're not excited about the mine, that's for sure.

KASTE: But polling is notoriously tricky in Alaska, and public opinion on the mine is hard to nail down. The Republican senator and Republican governor are reserving judgment until the developers submit formal permit applications. And they say the state should make the call, not the feds. The project's spokesman, meanwhile, talks up the economic potential.

HEATWOLE: In the ground is a tremendous copper, gold and molybdenum resource. It's the largest undeveloped copper discovery in North America, and clearly could support decades of economic activity and jobs.

KASTE: It's a powerful argument in Alaska, where people worry about declining income from oil. But at the moment, the environmental concerns seem to be winning the day. Last fall, one of the companies in the Pebble Partnership backed out. Some of the people doing prep work have been laid off, and there's still no sign of a formal application to start digging. Martin Kaste, NPR News.

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