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.