Anglo American in thick of great Alaskan Pebble mine debate

Date of publication: 
16 September 2011

ANCHORAGE, Alaska ( – That Anglo American is in the thick of a great Alaskan mining debate was quickly apparent upon my arrival here, with advertisements in Alaskan business magazines providing ready affirmation.

At issue is whether or not the South African-created but London-domiciled diversified mining major, together with the Canada-based Northern Dynasty mining concern, should exploit the large copper, gold and molybdenum porphyry in the Bristol Bay region of south-west Alaska, near Lake Iliamna and Lake Clark.

A full-page advertisement in one of the Alaskan magazines placed in my hotel room for perusal was all in favour of the Pebble mine going ahead using “world-class science”, but an equally prominent advertisement in the magazine alongside it framed the Pebble project in a bright red no-go sign.

Two other adverts during my subsequent enquiries unequivocally requested Anglo American to keep out of the Bristol Bay watershed, including one that was endorsed by none other than American film star Robert Redford.

The concern centres on Bristol Bay’s ‘renewable’ wild salmon fishery being negatively impacted by the ‘non- renewable’ Pebble mine.

“Anglo American plc wants to dig a massive openpit mine . . . and dispose of billions of tons of toxic mine waste . . . threatening our fish, our livelihood and our way of life,” says an ad sponsored by nonprofit organisation Nunamta Aulukestai, made up of nine Alaska Native Village Corporations.

But balancing the process is the Pebble Partnership, an Anglo American and Northern Dynasty initiative that has responsible coexistence and respectful protection as its goals.

The Pebble project is currently in the pre-feasibility and prepermitting research stage.

Some $400-million is being invested in work programmes, research and comparative studies and a further $100-million in environmental and socioeconomic studies.

More than 67 varieties of state and federal permits will be required before construction can begin and more than a dozen state and federal entities will oversee the process.

The Pebble Partnership’s core principles are that the project will benefit Alaskans, apply the world’s best science, build sustainable communities and listen before it acts.

All this is being done against the background of global demand for copper being at an all-time high.

Protagonists of the project emphasise the point that copper is one of few natural resources that touch many aspects of day-to-day life.

The base metal is also a key component of green-technology equipment like wind turbines, hybrid cars and solar power systems.

Since acquiring the Pebble Project in 2001, Northern Dynasty claims to have delineated one of the world’s greatest stores of mineral wealth in a deposit that is remarkable for both its size and composition.

Pebble is said to contain 55-billion pounds of copper, 66.9-million ounces of gold and 3.3-billion pounds of molybdenum, as well as silver, palladium and rhenium.

Despite the vociferous project protest from Alaskan communities, Anglo American and Northern Dynasty are claiming broad public support for “responsible” resource development in Alaska.

Oil in Decline

A factor likely to promote Pebble is Alaska’s declining oil volumes.

My walk through the Alaska State Capitol building in Juneau was not only marked by a picture of former Alaska governor and 2008 US VP contender Sarah Palin but more importantly by two prominently placed graphs pasted up on the wall that show the sharp decline in Alaska’s crude oil volumes.

While some argue that the Alaskan economy was fine before oil and will be fine after oil, First National Bank Alaska vice-chairperson Betsy Lawer points out in the latest edition of Alaska Business Monthly magazine that one out of every three jobs held by an Alaskan can be traced directly to the Alaska petroleum industry.

The discovery of the state’s Prudhoe Bay oilfield in 1968 was followed a year later with the sale of the North Slope lease and today the petroleum industry underpins the bulk of the state of Alaska’s General Fund and oil royalties fund tax-credit programmes that encourage tourism and film-making.

Fittingly, the tour bus in which I was travelling stopped to view the 1 200 km trans-Alaska pipeline from Prudhoe Bay to Valdez, much of it above ground and much of it permitting pipeline movement to provide the necessary flexibility during seismic events.

Lawer reports that the pipeline is currently less than one-third full, with oil flow declining by 6% a year.

Moreover, the much-celebrated pipeline faces the prospect of having to cease operating before it is completely empty – a challenging prospect for Alaskans, who are looking for ways of filling the economic gap that closure will leave behind.

Pebble is clearly a project that could help to close the void left by oil and organisations that favour its development include the Resource Development Council, the Alaska Miners Association and the Alaska State Chamber of Commerce.

But the Stop Pebble initiative argues that the proposed Pebble mine will be gouged out of an American paradise that is filled with salmon, bears, moose, caribou, wolves and whales and that has sustained native communities for thousands of years.

Opponents add that earthquakes could result in the potentially hazardous sulphur that the Pebble ore contains spewing out of tailings dams into salmon spawning grounds.

The Alaska Earthquake Information Centre reports that many of Alaska’s frequent earthquakes occur in the Bristol Bay region, which is also part of the so-called ‘Ring of Fire’, where many volcanoes remain active.

South-west Alaska has a nigh endless series of mountains, woods and tundra interspersed by thousands of square kilometres of wetlands, lagoons, ponds, lakes, streams and rivers that feed into Bristol Bay.

This wilderness supports the world’s largest sockeye salmon runs in which millions make their way towards spawning grounds upriver from the bay.

It also supports many native Alaskans – primarily Yupik, but also Aleut, Dena’ina, Athabascan and Tlingit – who regard Bristol Bay their sacred home.

Villages, most of them accessible only by plane, boat or snowmobile, dot the area.

Groups that oppose Pebble include the Renewable Resources Coalition, the Bristol Bay Native Association and the Alaska Wilderness Tourism Association.

Lawsuits are already in play to stop construction, which would take four years.

Dave Cruz, of Cruz Construction, is quoted as saying that Pebble can be built without harming the fish of Bristol Bay and that groups opposing the project are exaggerating the environmental risks.

But south-west Alaska is also one of the most economically depressed areas in the country, where employment opportunities are scarce and the cost of living is one of the highest in the nation. The Pebble project has the potential to change that.

Anglo American media relations head James Wyatt-Tilby says in items published here that Alaska has a long history of managing development on wetlands, and points to the Fraser river’s record salmon run of 34-million in 2010, despite large-scale copper mining and industrial activity in the water-shed.

Others quote David Suzuki Foundation aquatic scientist Jeffery Young as saying that the biological productivity of Fraser river sockeye is declining to an all-time low.

Anglo American operates copper mines in Chile, which recently suffered a severe earthquake without the mining company’s seismic-protected tailings dams being damaged.

The company is well aware that it will have to apply world-class science to persuade the people of Alaska that Pebble, one of North America’s most significant copper discoveries, should go ahead.

Already more than 500 scientists and technicians have conducted what is described as a most extensive environmental study at a time when Alaska is in need of an economic driver to soften the impact of its declining petroleum predicament.

Mining has helped to build Alaska. Gold has been found in many places in Alaska and, whenever news leaked out of a gold find, miners rushed to the area.

Gold strikes in Juneau, Nome and Fairbanks are well documented and the route to the Klondike went through Alaska primarily at Skagway.

The lure of Klondike gold was responsible for one of the largest voluntary mass movements of people in history.

Alaskan tour guides continue to turn old gold sites to positive account, allowing the mining legacy to live on and put cash in the till, which is another reason why opponents of the Pebble project should think deeply before halting a significant economic opportunity.