Mark Hamilton: Could the Pebble Mine project have been done better? Here’s how

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By MARK HAMILTON

There is no question the Pebble Project mine could have had a better beginning, and maybe a different outcome. I can’t tell you I would have done it differently, but with 20-20 hindsight, there was a better way.

There were some efforts to involve the Bristol Bay Native Corporation, but not enough efforts. The fact that the mine site was on state land was not a reason to fail to educate all the people in Bristol Bay.  

Mining was certainly not out of the question for Native corporations; BBNC had explored mining opportunities before. This campaign would have been very difficult, as forays toward this educational goal were met with demonstrations organized and funded by opponents. It was an early rendition of what is now too common—the denial of opportunity to present a position.

So, it would have been very, very difficult but failure in this step ultimately doomed the project.

From the beginning everyone knew that the salmon were the biggest concern and therefore the biggest issue to resolve. The developer spent too much emphasis on the value of the minerals. This is understandable, given the world class nature of the find. But it was the wrong approach. 

The involvement had to be more than giving BBNC a share (that was offered in several ways throughout the project). They needed a share and they needed to be involved. The developer had the data. They had conducted an impeccable baseline environmental survey. They were aware of the regulations they had to meet. But their knowledge of and commitment to doing the least harm possible to the environment was missing from their early presentations.  

Unfortunately, the “it’s big, it’s huge, it’s a 100-year mine” approach turned many very powerful Alaskans against the project from the beginning. 

I have talked to many Alaskans who felt they were treated like rubes, their questions dismissed or answered bluntly.  The sad part is that the developer knew the answers; they simply dismissed the questions.  I worked for the developers for three years. They are not heartless; they are not careless. In trying to square that circle, I can come up with only one conceivable reason — not an excuse, but a reason to explain this failure to truly listen. 

First, was their involvement with Anglo American. Anglo is sort of the Exxon of gold companies in the sense that they leave no I undotted or t uncrossed. It was never so much illustrated as with the baseline environmental study.  Typically, a developer would hire several environmental consultant firms to assist in the study. 

Anglo demanded “the best salmon person,” “the best waterfowl person,” and so forth, requiring the hiring of 60 consultant firms to supply more than 100 of the top people in their field.  Armed with this sort of second- and third- level assessment, the developers may have dismissed honest questions with an “of course we’ve looked at that” answer.

Regardless, the initial contacts with people who ought to have been courted were remembered as arrogant.

A companion miscalculation was underestimating the impact of absurd claims and fears. Many were ridiculous, but the proper treatment of them was not to ridicule, but to treat the claim and fear as a reality that needed addressing.  This was done well during the three-year NEPA process (where every claim must be addressed to the satisfaction of the cooperating agencies) not as well in the several years leading up to that 3-year event. 

As a result, by the time the scientific evaluation had determined that the project would not harm the salmon, that the process was not toxic, that earthquakes would not affect the structure, that there was minimal storage of water, and so forth, no one read it, because their minds had been made up with a decade of propaganda.

This is worth noting, since every development project will encounter a similar challenge. A project must convince the scientists and the cooperating agencies, but failure to address the fears of the badly informed will leave your efforts fruitless.

There will be more development projects in Alaska. Each will have its own detractors. Look for the efforts and phrases that remind you of the opponents of Pebble Mine; they worked once, and they will try hard to “pebble” you again.

The “Pebbled” series at Must Read Alaska is authored by Mark Hamilton. After 31 years of service to this nation, Hamilton retired as a Major General with the U. S. Army in July of 1998. He served for 12 years as President of University of Alaska, and is now President Emeritus. He worked for the Pebble Partnership for three years before retiring. This is the last in the Pebbled series, although Must Read Alaska will endeavor to get Hamilton to write in the future.

Pebbled 1: Virtue signaling won out over science in project of the century

Pebbled 2: Environmental industry has fear-mongering down to an art

Pebbled 3: The secret history of ANWR and the hand that shaped it

Pebbled 4: When government dictates an advance prohibition

Pebbled 5: EPA ‘just didn’t have time’ to actually go to Bristol Bay

Pebbled 6: The narrative of fear

Pebbled 7: The environmentalists who cried wolf

Pebbled 8: Build your media filter based on science, not narrative

Pebbled 9: The history of hysteria

Part 10: Here we go again, with EPA power grab

Pebbled 11: Mining 101

Pebbled 12: Climate change, predictions that never came true

Pebbled 13: You can go fishing in a modern tailings pond

Pebbled 14: Don’t let Alaska get ‘Pebbled’ again

26 COMMENTS

  1. I don’t disagree with anything General Hamilton has written here. However, did I miss the mention of the incident in which environmentalists tricked Pebble leaders into bragging about how they had elected officials in their pockets? That showed that the battle was lopsided; the Pebble leaders were/are stupid. Going into a battle with stupid leaders brings textbook results: Look at videos of leaving Vietnam and Afghanistan! Yes, Pebble wasted tons of money making every public process mistake in the book. Pebble has badly damaged the Alaska brand as the entire international mining community has seen how it’s possible to spend decades and millions upon millions of dollars here to finally throw in the towel. The State of Alaska should send a $100 million invoice to the Pebble investors, a fraction of the damage done to us. BTW, environmental consultants never want the gravy train to end so they like process and dislike the very end result the investors want – they will cash your checks as long as you send them. Does anyone disagree with me about any of this?

  2. Tell me even one project—even just a 10 mile, one-lane road in Cold Bay that would save human lives—that even one environmentalist has ever supported. It doesn’t matter what the science says or even if God Himself came down and demanded that a mine be built. Too, unless one is a scientist with 10 PhD’s in different fields of study, it’s next to impossible to know who’s telling the truth on any given project like the Pebble Mine. On the other hand, every corporation out there would dump plutonium in our drinking water if it’d save them 10 cents and they thought they could get away with it (or just retire and take $10 of million in options before they were found out—which has happened about 10,000 times).

  3. There is an underlying reason for Pebble’s failure. Publicly traded corporate entities have, e.g.: SEC regulated limits on their behavior. They can’t falsely report the results of their efforts. They can’t bribe locals. They have to abide by the rules of a corporate entity doing business in the US.
    Non-profit environmental entities lack these controls, and often gain benefit from the opposite approach. The more outrageous their claim, the more they profit in donations and membership.
    Generating controversy and public outrage creates the greatest profit and political power for Environmental entities. Lacking any restrictions on truth or honesty, they can spin a complex topic into a maze of allegations and false assertions far exceeding the ability of individuals to respond.
    A mining entity may be led by brilliant mining engineers, able to work out the most complex of earth chemistry, but its a fact: engineers aren’t trained in public discourse. Let alone how to respond to public controversy so as to prevent public outrage that will stop their project.
    Sure, I can pencil out the stoichiometric balance of the available sulfur in the Pebble ore deposit, determine its acid generating potential, and mathematically demonstrate that it can’t wipe out the salmon of Bristol Bay. Been awhile,, but I have performed the routine baseline analysis calculations to determine how much nearby limestone is needed to eliminate all acid rock drainage. But who could hear me?
    Environmental groups canvas tiny villages seeking a few individuals they can pay miniscule amounts to make even more outlandish claims.
    Corporations are guided by laws and regulations, and internal corporate lawyers, that prioritize expenditures that can lead to future profits. For miners , thus leads to an abundant focus on mining, not PR.
    Alaska, as another miner pointed out, is the most high risk place on the planet for development. As a result, Alaska has only one industrial base: oil.

    • Exactly my experience as an engineer working for the oil industry up here for nearly 40 years. Every time we’d counter the environmental arguments with facts, it didn’t matter. What always controls for these issues are emotions that are inflamed by the environmentalists using tactics as described in the article. Facts don’t matter, emotion wins out every time.

    • Sure Bruce, corporations are well-regulated and law abiding. I wonder if there is any evidence to contradict that? And sure Bruce environmentalists are lawless donation seekers.

  4. No matter how many times the question has come up, nobody’s ever explained the TAX STRUCTURE.

    If you can’t explain the financial rewards, everything else your trying to explain, is immaterial.

    General, I believe that corporate arrogance, failed to see the depth of mistrust that the people of Western Alaska have for the state legislature.

  5. More goofey jibberish from the old general. Pebble failed the public perception test and now they bring this old dinosaur to do a postmortem and write the Pebble epitaph. Entirely laughable.
    .
    Here’s the skinny on old Ham. As UA President his function was to fly to Juneau during session and order, no beg, legislators for funding so he could build monuments with his signature at ground level, while living like a Hollywood king in Alaska. Now for the hypocracy and irony …
    .
    He destroyed the UA School of Mines through dilution and created an “affinity school” for Natives. This exclusionary approach keeps Natives and non-Natives in separate environments, an antithesis for a true college education.
    .
    Why Pebble needs this guy to tell Alaskans what they are missing is more like a joke. Each article diminishes his credibility to the point where the remaining Pebble narrative is, “old mistakes and defeated generals need to just fade away.”

  6. General Hamilton wrote “failure to address the fears of the badly informed will leave your efforts fruitless.”
    .
    Sometimes the badly informed choose to be badly informed and addressing their fears only fuels the fire. These people are willfully ignorant and choose to remain so. I do agree, however, that they must be addressed because ignorance and fear will spread and run rampant among those who wish to wallow in ignorance if not addressed.

    • so are you saying Robert Gillam wallowed in ignorance? How about the $250K he gave to the Trump victory fund after Trump blocked the mine?
      14 articles repeating the same thing, environmentalists are to blame. Maybe he should of bothered to educate readers. I may have missed it but not one mention of why Cominco sold the prospect. Why did Anglo American leave the partnership.
      Years ago at the state Geography Bee he gave the opening speech. He talked about the opening of the Northwest Passage. It was an inspiring speech to an intelligent group of young people. After reading these articles I think Ted nailed it.
      ” Each article diminishes his credibility to the point where the remaining Pebble narrative is, “old mistakes and defeated generals need to just fade away.”

      • Money doesn’t buy knowledge. Money might buy access to knowledge but if a person decides to be willfully ignorant then that’s on them.
        .
        Each one of these commentaries shares information about the shortcomings of the process, some of the shortcomings are on government and some are on the developer(s), most of this wasn’t general knowledge available to the general public at the time it happened. The only people who wouldn’t want this information made public have a political purpose for it to not be made public, what’s your purpose?

  7. “…….failure to address the fears of the badly informed will leave your efforts fruitless……….”
    Propaganda and lies work. And Steve-O is 100% correct; some wish to believe the lies, and many who originally believe them will never reject them later because it would show that they were initially wrong. I think it’s important to ask how the communists, environmentalists, and other extremists got so much better at information warfare than the rest of us. I think I have the answer: it has been the #1 lesson taught at every western university in Earth since the early 1960’s, regardless of one’s chosen major, and General Hamilton ought to know that very well.

    • Reggie: “Propaganda and lies work. … some wish to believe the lies, and many who originally believe them will never reject them later because it would show that they were initially wrong.”

      That is exactly why its hard for those who liked Trump in the beginning to admit they don’t now. The trick for the pro-Trumpers is to find a way to reject him and still save face.

      • “………That is exactly why its hard for those who liked Trump in the beginning to admit they don’t now. The trick for the pro-Trumpers is to find a way to reject him and still save face………”
        In 2016 I pulled Trump’s lever because Hillary was simply unacceptable, and for all elections since 1992, and for most candidates, it has been a matter of choosing the lesser of the offered evils. After his election, Trump pleasantly surprised me with his open political warfare with deep state bureaucrats and special interest ideologues which he eventually lost, but which he fought gallantly. If he runs again, I will vote for him again without question. I much prefer watching open political warfare among politicians, lawyers, and journalists than street fighting between the citizenry even though I fully expect this hatred between Americans to continue growing until it all implodes..

        • Reggie: enjoy the fight. I’m hoping for the restoration of democracy; a more noble cause don’t you think?

  8. As a couple comments have noted, facts simply didn’t matter. This was entirely a persuasion play, and the greens managed to play in the emotional field. Developers MUST get good in the persuasion business. Look at it like fishing, before you can set the hook, you gotta trigger a strike. Use emotion and persuasion to trigger the strike. Use facts to set the hook. Cheers –

  9. It is simple
    Bond the fishery to the twenty yr average.

    Give a 3% stream to the state of Alaska.

    Give another 3% stream to the bristol bay native corp

    now with buy in, Pebble would be supported: greed is what shut Pebble down not politics.

    • The developers could do this and still make vast sums of money. The problem is the anti-development crowd doesn’t and wouldn’t care if that was done. And the developers can go to third world countries with little or no governmental oversight and environmental rules and make more money. This is the part where we can both be honest and say somewhere north of 95% of the anti-development crowd is ok with development as long as they can’t see it. Putting a mine in a third world country with little or no governmental oversight and environmental rules doesn’t bother these people, just don’t put that mine here!

      • Only one way to find out-show us the money.

        the strategy has worked for oil in Alaska: we are a pro-oil state because we profit from it.

        Same would apply for Pebble except for greed.

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