Taking the pebble by the horns

Foreground | An Alaska environment meeting puts discussion of a controversial mine front and centre

Some if by sea. None if by land? (Photo: echoforsberg)

Kevin McGwin

During the course of the five days it lasts, the Alaska Forum on the Environment, a big annual gathering, serves as a place where groups from throughout the state can listen and have their say on any number of issues, from food security to honey buckets.

As with most meetings of this sort that have science at their core, some of the discussions will be too technical for the lay person to understand. Others, though more approachable, are just as hard to wrap your head around, but for another reason. Resource exploitation is one: in a state with few other economic opportunities, is it fair to limit certain industries, or to lock off some areas entirely?

Oil is perhaps the noisiest debate, given the input from voices from outside the state, but as heated as the argument gets, the fault lines are familiar; it pits those who live off the land and and those who want to see it remain untouched.

Not all efforts to trip up resource development can be pinned on the bogeyman of out-of-state agitators, though, nor do they take on a classic jobs vs nature storyline. Take the proposed Pebble Mine, which, if approved, would extract a range of ores, including gold, copper and molybdenum from a site in the south-western part of the state. Proponents’ arguments are as bog-standard as they are valid: jobs, tax revenue and reduced national dependence on strategic materials.

Such benefits, according to some polls, have a majority of state lawmakers sold on the project, though the public remains on the fence. This is in large part due to the proposed impact the mine could have on fishing in Bristol Bay, the richest commercial fishery in America’s biggest fishing state, thanks to the fact that it is a habitat for huge numbers of salmon.

The industry is opposed to the the mine because it worries that tailings, the rubble that remains after ore is extracted from rock, stored pools of water held in place by earthen dams could somehow find their way into the bay, poisoning its waters. Should that happen, both fish and humans would suffer: fish would die as would the jobs they create; about 75% of in people in the area have a job that is directly on commercial fishing, according to the industry. Rather than jobs vs nature, the fishermen sees the mine as a question of jobs vs more jobs.

A discussion of the Pebble Mine, followed by a session in which the public will get the chance to make comments, opens the Alaska Forum on the Environment. Next week, federal authorities say they will release next week of a preliminary federal review of the mine’s impact. The review, like today’s session, will have the unenvious task of sorting out to what extent one mine’s trash will be another industry’s trash, too.

When: 11-15 Feb
Where: Anchorage, Alaska
WWW: Alaska Forum on the Environment

Related article
What does the Dunleavy administration mean for the proposed Pebble Mine?

Foreground articles offer a preview of events related to the Arctic that will be taking place in coming week.

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