“Well, first of all, let’s address the elephant in the room.”
That’s how Mark Hamilton started his talk about Pebble Mine at Wednesday’s joint Soldotna and Kenai Chamber Luncheon.
Hamilton is the vice president of external affairs for the Pebble Limited Partnership, the company spearheading the controversial Pebble Mine Project.
That project, now in an advanced exploration stage, would build an open-pit mine in the Bristol Bay region of southwest Alaska, where there are rich mineral deposits.
The plan has always been contentious. Opponents fear the project would jeopardize the Bristol Bay watershed and salmon runs and consequently endanger the livelihoods of the thousands of fishermen who work there.
The controversy reached new heights earlier this month, when Pebble executives were caught on tape saying they had Alaskan politicians, like Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan, in the palms of their hands. After the Environmental Investigation Agency released the tapes, Pebble Limited Partnership CEO Tom Collier resigned.
Hence, the elephant in the room.
“We’re going to do the very best we can to try to reestablish the trust that we had built for a number of years,” Hamilton said. “And we know that that’s a formidable task.”
Hamilton attempted to address some of these concerns at his talk. He spoke at length about the project’s regulatory process and said precautionary measures would ensure against the large-scale disaster opponents fear. He also said the mine would bring lots of jobs to the region.
“Water quality and quantity will be protected. Very, very important,” Hamilton said. “This is an interesting subject. It’s a little puzzling why people are so concerned about the water. I mean, it’s got to be protected, I understand that, but this is something we really know how to do. I mean, every village in every city in the entire United States has water purification issues … We can do this on cruise ships.”
Steve Schoonmaker, of Kasilof, was at the lunch and asked Hamilton about that comment during the Q&A session of the talk.
“My question is to you, based on what we’ve already seen recently, with the obvious corruption — you can deny it — how should Alaskans, and the next generation of Alaskans, come to trust this project at all?” Schoonmaker said.
Hamilton again spoke of the regulatory process, which he described as extensive.
“It doesn’t matter if you trust me, you trust Pebble, you ought to trust that process,” he said.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers released an environmental impact statement on the mine this summer. Entities like the Bristol Bay Native Corporation have said the impact statement did not assuage their worries about the mine.
In addition, the Corps has asked Pebble for a mitigation plan for addressing the damage the project could cause to wetlands and streams. Hamilton said coming up with that mitigation plan will be challenging for a number of reasons.
Clark Whitney Jr. and Kaitlin Vadla also pressed Hamilton on the potential danger of the project. Whitney talked about his time in the Pedro Bay region, saying that the area is “priceless.” Vadla said salmon are deeply imbued in the spirituality of the people of Nondalton.
“I speak on behalf of the late Alan Boraas, beloved professor at KPC, who worked with the people of the region for decades,” Vadla said. “And his work shows that salmon aren’t just nice. For me, my family lives on the river, and it’s very nice for us to fill our freezers. But for the people of Nonadlton, where I have many friends, and the people who have lived in this area for thousands of years, it’s not just nice to have salmon. It’s the bedrock of their spirituality. … I don’t think that’s worth risking.”
Hamilton was also asked about Pebble infrastructure that will directly affect the borough.
“Those kind of very detailed, ‘Where’s it going to go from here,’ kind of things have to wait for a couple things,” Hamilton said.
According to the Pebble Project Environmental Impact Statement, the project would involve “a natural gas pipeline from the Kenai Peninsula to the mine site for power generation.” There are several alternative pathways listed in that statement for where, exactly, such a pipeline might run.