Planned Open-Pit Mine Stirs Environmental Fight

The tundra of southwestern Alaska i i

Pebble Mine would sit not far from this patch of tundra of southwestern Alaska. Martin Kaste, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Martin Kaste, NPR
The tundra of southwestern Alaska

Pebble Mine would sit not far from this patch of tundra of southwestern Alaska.

Martin Kaste, NPR

Reporter’s Notebook

Spies and reporters know the value of blending in, of observing without attracting attention. That wasn't going to happen in Iliamna, a tiny Alaskan town where everyone knows each other. To rent a car, Martin Kaste had to borrow one. Read his reporter's notebook.

Map of Southwestern Alaska i i

Pebble Mine would sit in a roadless area of southwest Alaska . The closest settlement is the village of Nondalton, which is 12 miles from the planned mine site. Iliamna, another village, is 18 miles away and is where the mining company has its base of operations. Lindsay Mangum, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Lindsay Mangum, NPR
Map of Southwestern Alaska

Pebble Mine would sit in a roadless area of southwest Alaska . The closest settlement is the village of Nondalton, which is 12 miles from the planned mine site. Iliamna, another village, is 18 miles away and is where the mining company has its base of operations.

Lindsay Mangum, NPR
Rick Delkittie i i

Rick Delkittie, a native of Nondalton, points to the proposed site of Pebble Mine. He is worried about the mine's effect on the salmon runs in his village. Martin Kaste, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Martin Kaste, NPR
Rick Delkittie

Rick Delkittie, a native of Nondalton, points to the proposed site of Pebble Mine. He is worried about the mine's effect on the salmon runs in his village.

Martin Kaste, NPR
Mark Neen i i

Mark Neen is a hunter and bush pilot in Iliamna. Neen flies hundreds of miles without seeing a road or house, and like others who support the mine, he says that a two-mile-wide open pit would hardly be noticed in the giant landscape. Martin Kaste, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Martin Kaste, NPR
Mark Neen

Mark Neen is a hunter and bush pilot in Iliamna. Neen flies hundreds of miles without seeing a road or house, and like others who support the mine, he says that a two-mile-wide open pit would hardly be noticed in the giant landscape.

Martin Kaste, NPR

A proposed open-pit copper and gold mine in southwestern Alaska has sparked outrage among some locals, the nearby fishing industry and a coalition of environmentalists, who worry it would carve up the pristine wilderness and poison a large salmon run.

The mine would sit on a lonely spot of tundra near Lake Iliamna, 1,000 square miles of pure freshwater ringed by a handful of native villages, including Nondalton and Iliamna.

The mining company, Canadian-based Northern Dynasty Minerals, is hoping its proposed Pebble Mine will prove to be the richest of its kind in the world, with billions of dollars in copper and gold just waiting to be dug up. It could be perfectly timed for the industrial boom in China.

Northern Dynasty has countered anti-mine ads with its own videos. The mining company says it knows how to keep contaminants sealed up behind earthen dams so that water and land will be unharmed. And, it says, the proposed mine is already providing a boost to the local economy.

The main business around this region used to be hunting and fishing, but now hunting lodges are filling up with mining company workers.

Some natives, like Rick Delkittie, find it all too disruptive.

Delkittie relies on an abundant supply of fish and game. He's afraid of any environmental contamination, even from a mine 12 miles away.

Delkittie's main concern, which is shared by the fishing industry down on Bristol Bay, is water quality. Environmentalists in Anchorage say the mine will inevitably leak acids and trace metals into the salmon streams. The area is home to the largest sockeye salmon run in the world and sustains an entire industry on Bristol Bay.

In little villages like Nondalton, natives eat salmon and other game every night.

Rick Delkittie's freezer is full of plastic bags that contain local food, including black bear and moose meat.

"We have some blueberries, you got some cranberries. Sockeye. This is king salmon," Delkittie's said as he sorted through the frozen bags.

'Probably a Good Thing for Work'

In the village of Iliamna, where Northern Dynasty has built its base of operations, the natives seem willing to give the mine a chance.

Harvey Anelon, president of the village council, said the mine is "probably a good thing for work," as long as it is environmentally safe.

Anelon is also president of the natives' for-profit corporation, which just started a subsidiary to provide services to Northern Dynasty.

Anelon said that there is money to be made.

"If you're a profit-making corporation and you're sitting back and doing nothing, you're hurting yourself," Anelon said.

Northern Dynasty needs to stay on the good side of people like Anelon, who wields much power in the village. Alliances will be key, for example, when it comes time to build an access road across native-owned land.

Some wonder if things are getting too cozy; a state legislator recently accused the company of bribing native leaders.

Anelon has heard the charges.

"Yeah, I wish I had some of that money," Anelon said. "I heard it was a lot. I ain't seen any of that money yet."

At the Northern Dynasty offices in Vancouver, Canada, spokesman Sean Magee rejects the bribery accusation.

"I have to tell you, it's frustrating that hiring local people and having contracts with local business is considered somehow wrong," Magee said.

Magee notes that the opposition is also well funded. Outsiders have paid for anti-mine TV ads and have flown natives like Delkittie to public hearings to oppose the project. Magee says environmentalists want to scare the locals, and he says all the company can do is try to give people a sense of scale.

"Our project would have a footprint of about 15 square miles, we think, give or take," Magee said. "That represents four one-hundredths of one percent of the land base of this region."

In exchange, Magee says, the mine offers this cash-poor wilderness $5 billion dollars in capital investment and a thousand jobs paying an average of $80,000 per year.

The tiny general store in Iliamna already sells "Pebble Mine" sweatshirts — even though the mine hasn't been approved yet. The sense here is that the mine is inevitable, that it's too big not to happen.

In Tiny Iliamna, Everyone's a Source

Related Story

Spies and reporters know the value of blending in. You want to be the gray man, and observe as much as you can without attracting attention to yourself.

That wasn't going to happen in Iliamna.

I flew in to the small village in southwestern Alaska to write a story on a controversial plan to build a copper and gold mine there. If approved, an open pit-mine would be dug into pristine Alaskan wilderness.

When I called ahead to set up interviews, half the people I reached seemed to be related to the other half. A couple of them offered to rent me their personal cars. I ended up accepting an offer from Tim, the guy who answered the phone at the village offices. (Tim, it turns out, is the brother of the tribal council president, the true power in town.) He had the car waiting for me at the airstrip when I arrived.

"Key's in the ignition," he said, walking away.

"Don't you want my signature on something? Take down my name?"

He laughed. "Where you gonna go?"

He had a point. They have a couple dozen miles of road connecting Iliamna to two neighboring villages, and after that, tundra. The three-year-old Subaru he rented me (his wife's) had 2,500 miles on it.

In Iliamna, nearly everything man-made has been flown in. Dixie cups, frozen pizzas, cement, Subarus. It all comes in on planes. Gas, not surprisingly, is running $5.40 a gallon. It's cheaper to hunt your food than to buy it.

So I went about my business, driving up and down the same three miles of blacktop between interviews. I kept passing the same half-dozen cars. Some of the drivers squinted at me, probably wondering who was driving Tim's wife's car. But they unfailingly raised a hand in greeting, every time. That is, the natives did; the outsiders working for the mining company didn't bother. The tribal president later told me that that's a crucial difference between locals and outsiders. So I developed my own version of the wave: three fingers up, pinky resting on the steering wheel. Casual, but not indifferent.

I stayed in a hunting lodge on the shore of Lake Iliamna, and got my meals at the General Store — the only store. Frozen pizzas, airlifted from Ohio. And it dawned on me that I was part of the local economy. I was certainly not the first reporter from the lower 48 spending money here on a car, lodging and frozen foods. The company developing the Pebble Mine could almost claim me as "related" economic development.

But just as I was beginning to feel a little bit used, a guy named Vince drove up to my lodge. We'd crossed paths on the road a few times, stopping to chat. Now he was delivering a big freezer bag full of home-made salmon jerky.

"It's great with hot sauce," he said, and wished me a good trip home.

The next morning, I dropped the Subaru off at Tim's house. I had to remind him how much I owed him, and he didn't mind that I was short of cash.

I handed him the keys, and asked if he'd drive me over to the airfield.

"Oh, you can just drive it over yourself," he said. "Just leave the keys in the ignition; I'll get it later."

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