Proposed for a peninsula near Bristol Bay, Alaska, the Pebble Mine would extract two of the world's most precious metals: gold and copper. It could not only be the world's biggest mine of its type, but could also include the world's biggest dam, smack in the middle of the world's largest salmon fishery.
Northern Dynasty Minerals, in partnership with Anglo-American, is seeking regulatory approval for the open-pit mine. But where some see a vital addition to Alaska's economy, others see an unmitigated threat to the environment. Now a group of seventh-graders in nearby Dillingham has banded together as Rebels to the Pebble, a dogged and creative activist corps.
Their teacher, Kathy McLinn, says the students acted after doing research into the project and its possible effects on the environment. The idea was to study an issue and then write a persuasive essay. The kids grew tired of that exercise in a hurry, McLinn says.
"They wanted to talk to people who mattered, powerful people, people who could make a difference," she says. "I had a 100 percent group of kids who were opposed to the Pebble mine."
McLinn's students are largely natives, and their families depend on local salmon and plants for subsistence.
"To talk about damaging that in even the slightest way is earth-shattering," she says. "It's very, very profound."
A recent survey in the region found that more than two-thirds of the native population is opposed to the Pebble mine. They're worried that the dam and heavy metals from the mine would disturb the salmon population.
Now the locals have a new voice: the Rebels to the Pebble. McLinn says the kids organized committees and panel groups, and have been holding demonstrations.
"There's no such thing as a clean mine, and that's what they're proposing," said one student at a rally. "I'm just completely against the mines. It's basically just going to, in my opinion, ruin a lot of our wildlife."
Meanwhile, Pebble Partnership spokesperson Sean Magee says it wants to run an environmentally sensitive operation that would also add needed jobs to the area economy. Gold prices reached past $900 an ounce this week. Magee says the proposal is still in the design phase, so it's not clear yet how big it would be or how it would operate.
"We know that it is on us to prove that it can be done safely, and the fish come first," he says.
MaGee says the mine could create as many as 1,000 full-time, well-paid jobs in a region that's losing population.
"Communities are struggling, and schools are closing," he says. He says the company is reaching out to local people and that he'd be happy to speak to McLinn's class.
The Dillingham students are around the age of 12, and McLinn says they're taking the first steps into adulthood. Now they're looking ahead with some trepidation. As one boy at a rally said, "This job will only go for maybe 50 years, while fishing could go on for more and more years."
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