By SANDY SZWARC / FOR MUST READ ALASKA
Pebble Mine is a story of Alaskans and Native peoples being prohibited from using their natural resources. The mine is of tremendous significance to the Alaska people touched by it, but not in the ways that have been portrayed in media…incessantly.
Among the thousands of articles, press releases, documentary-style videos, and advertisements written and paid for by Outside environmental activist groups and wealthy donors, none mentions the people whose lands and lives will actually be affected by the mine.
While Alaskans love and care about their State, not all have had their voices heard. Many have been drowned out. Most of the general public outside these small remote communities are probably unaware that there even are other views about the mine, voices in support.
It’s time they were heard.
REALITY OF LIFE
The tiny rural native Alaskan villages of the Lake & Peninsula Borough, Newhalen, Nondalton, and Iliamna, and Bristol Bay regions are nearest the mine. The residents, whose families have lived there for generations, have had to learn and understand the mine. It’s literally about survival, preserving their way of life, and protecting their ancestral homelands.
Life there is hard, unimaginable for most Americans. Alaska’s Lake & Peninsula Borough and Bristol Bay regions are among the most impoverished areas of Alaska, with high levels of unemployment (nearly twice the State average), diminishing population, and financially struggling schools.
Because these small rural communities are shut off from transportation systems and roads, everything must be brought in by barge or plane, from the fuel to their heat homes and generate electricity, to the basics of daily living.
The cost of living is high. People struggle with fuel costs double those of Anchorage, and electric rates nearly 18 cents per kW/h. The average residential electricity rate in Nondalton, for example, is 17.88 cents/kWh, more than 50 percent higher than the national average, and industrial electric rates are more than one and a half times the national average.
Former Village Tribal Chief Bill Trefon of Nandalton endeavored to explain to people outside their villages that traditional fishing, once passed down generation to generation, could no longer sustain them. Local fishing permits had dropped by half in just a single generation, he wrote.
Yet, there are no jobs or economic opportunities to make it possible for them to live and support themselves.
When permits for commercial fishing were limited in 1975, Alaska residents received 81.7 percent of the permits, with nonresidents getting 18.3 percent. By 2016, as permits were transferred and bought, local rural residents saw their permits drop by 30 percent. Some areas like Bristol Bay lost over 50 percent of their local permits. Meanwhile, nonresidents garnered 10 percent more permits. Permit ownerships also moved out of rural Alaskan areas to the cities, which grew 25 percent.
- A quarter of all Alaska fishing permits are now held by nonresidents. The greatest percentage, nearly half, of all permit transfers were to people outside family units.
- In Bristol Bay, half of all salmon permit holders live outside Alaska, taking jobs and revenue with them.
- The big money is made by commercial fisherman and processors harvesting the salmon from Bristol Bay, but less than a third of it stays in Alaska and most of that flows into larger communities outside the Bay area.
- Fishing jobs aren’t going to locals. Only a third of all fishing jobs in Bristol Bay are held by Alaska residents. Fishing processing has also moved out of state. According to University of Alaska-Anchorage research, 75 percent of the Bristol Bay salmon industry jobs and $300 million in processing income had been moved out of state by 2010. Jobs for fishing crews similarly moved out of state, and only one out of every eight Bristol Bay processing workers were even Alaskans.
- Cost of a fishing permit has grown out of reach for most rural local people. A Bristol Bay drift salmon permit now goes for $180,000 or more. Increasingly, these high-priced permits end up with big money out-of-state fisheries and wealthy hobbyists who find commercial fishing a fun way to spend the summer, wrote Alaskan journalist, Craig Medred.
Fishing opportunities for small rural traditional fishing communities are limited, Medred said. Jobs are growing scarcer, and about 30% of the people in the communities impacted by the Bristol Bay fishery now live below the poverty line.
For the people in these remote rural areas nearest the Pebble mine project – far from the fisheries and abundance of the Brisol Bay watershed − life is very different from the commercial fishing industry of the Bay. It’s also different from the larger surrounding towns or cities hundreds of miles away. Fuel and food are painfully expensive, and stable employment scarce. Myrtle Anelon, who owned a bed and breakfast in Iliamna, told former environmental journalist, Edwin Dobb, writing for National Geographic in 2010, that the Pebble Partnership is the first outside economic business to take an interest in her community’s welfare.
“The others make money in our backyard,” she said (referring to seasonal residents who own lodges that cater to high-end sport fishers), “but they don’t hire locals, they don’t buy from us.”
“Outsiders want us to go back to the old ways,” Lisa Reimers, head of Iliamna Development Corporation, explained to Dobb. “Some mine opponents promote a self-serving, sentimental view that ignores what it actually takes to survive,” she said. Her family and their community living around Iliamna Lake do still practice subsistence fishing and they treasure the wild habitat. But they also have truck payments, mortgages, and medical bills to pay. They want to send their kids to college. They need cash and welcome mining jobs, she said.
According to the latest Distressed Communities Report from the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development, these remote rural villages suffer significantly greater hardships than many nearby communities and cities across Alaska. Half of the villages in the Lake & Peninsula Borough were rated as “distressed” in 2019. The average earnings for Newhalen, for example, are $20,941 a year, with only 39 percent of people having year round employment. The poverty rate in Iliamna is about 30 percent higher than the entire state of Alaska.
Sixty percent of Iliamna and 70 percent of Newhalen workers earn under $9.84/hour.
Not all Alaskan communities face the same hardships as those closest to the mining area. In the town of Dillingham, 131 miles to the north, with a population 23 times larger, the average earnings are nearly double those of Newhalen. The poverty rate is almost half and 23 percent more people have year round employment.
Igiugig, a small village on the south shores of the Kvichak River, 48 miles southwest of Iliamna, has the highest percentage of year round employment in the Lake & Peninsula Borough, with renowned trophy fishing lodges and big game and sport fishing guides that cater to celebrities.
Along with financial hardship come crippling problems with alcoholism, abuse and suicide. Suicide rates among Alaska Natives are nearly four times the national average.
“So many young people …feel they have little opportunities for themselves in our Village,” Reimers wrote on the Iliamna Facebook page. People opposing the mine “don’t have a clue that a project in an area of poverty can change peoples perspective on life, for the better. A project can give them hope to build a home and raise their families in their home. Instead we get people’s negative opinions on a project and who go along with the special interest groups to stop any opportunity for these young people, who may have good future of this project if it was given a chance. They don’t see the damage this is doing to our young people, who are trying to make a good life for their families,” she wrote.
“I am not going to give up on our young people. I am going to continue to believe that people will see the truth of the devastation stopping a project does to other humans… the damage it is doing to the people to stop them from prospering.”
One of the Corps meetings in 2018 for local input on the Pebble mine, as part of the EIS process, was held at Newhalen School. Those who went to the meeting posted an account on Facebook. The Corps listened to their input and specific environmental concerns.
The majority of the locals from Iliamna and Newhalen wanted economic opportunities and jobs so that they could stay in their communities and raise their families, they reported. Families said “they would like to see their kids work and not have to depend on the government for assistance.” Right now, they have to leave their families for work. Pebble would give them an opportunity to work at home and “allow them to be with their families.”
At another 2019 Corps meetings, held in Kokhanok, local and nearby Iliamna residents also mostly spoke in support of the mine proposal noting the few jobs and poor economy. One mother said she’d lived in Iliamna her entire life.
“This is my home, there is where I want to be. And I am able to live here because I have a job,” said Chasity Anelon who had gotten an operations job with the Pebble Project. While many are afraid, “I’m also willing to see the process work and if they can prove that it can be done safe, I feel like it’s important for people in our lake area to have jobs. There’s been so many people that have left our communities because there’s no opportunities here. And when somebody has a job and they’re able to come to work and they have pride, is shows. You can tell.”
At the meeting held in Newhalen that evening, the “overwhelming message was that community members were struggling to find jobs,” reported Alaska Public media. “People there largely supported the mine.”
PEBBLE HAS BROUGHT OPPORTUNITIES
The local villages have forged good working relationships with Pebble. More than a hundred members of the communities, especially in the Lakes region and in Newhalen, had jobs working for Pebble during the exploration and study years, doing the field work as well as providing a wide range of support services, as a University of Alaska-Anchorage study documented. Pebble gave preference to local hiring and contractors were required to hire locally as much as possible, the study found. Apprentice and job training programs also enabled the locals to get the more advanced skilled and specialized jobs.
“Work earned on the Pebble Project continues to have positive impacts on Alaska Peninsula Corporation,” a recent quarterly member newsletter, APC Now!, reported. “The relationship between APC and the Pebble Partnership proves to be especially valuable in other ways,” it said. “Pebble work has demonstrated its value to the villages of Kokhanok and Newhalen by contributing to local economies through resident hire, doing business with local vendors and partnering with tribal governments. What we know for certain, is that working with Pebble has had a profound impact on community well-being for shareholders working to support their families.”
Iliamna Natives Ltd Board of Directors discussed the economic benefits the mine will bring. Pebble will bring about 750 to 1000 well-paying six-figure mining jobs, along with 1,000 mining support jobs. The project is also estimated to generate up to $420 million in revenue for Lake and Peninsula Borough over the next twenty years, on top of state taxes and royalties of between $970 million to $1.32 billion. These are nothing short of life saving for these communities.
Mining offers the best solution for Alaska, as well, they told their shareholders. With Alaska being among the richest mineral areas on Earth, it offers stability from the swings in the global markets and can produce the minerals the world energy supply will need.
A personal connection with the local people may have begun with John Shively, the original CEO of the Pebble Partnership, but it undeniably continues today, much of it given little fanfare or recognition outside the local communities. Pebble had said it was committed to partnering with local businesses and people to make certain the mine will benefit local communities and would contribute to the sustainability of the villages and native cultures. The local people have seen that commitment in action.
One little publicized initiative is Pebble’s sharing its on-site power infrastructure development to help lower fuel costs and bring affordable low-cost electricity or natural gas to local villagers. Pebble already began the RFP process last June. It also launched a revenue sharing plan to give 3 percent of their net profits to residents of Bristol Bay.
Working with local businesses, Pebble signed a Memorandum of Understanding last July with APC. It turned over the operation of all logistics for the project related to the proposed northern transportation corridor to the local native village businesses, which will bring them more than $20 million, and give the local businesses preferred contractor status.
More than a decade ago, Pebble established the Pebble Fund, a $5 million endowment to support local community-led projects to improve the health of the Bristol Bay fisheries, build community infrastructure, and other community projects to contribute to the people’s sustainable future. The fund awarded grants for an elderly food bank, libraries, schools, and cultural programs, street lights, vocational training, and other community projects.
NATIVE-OWNED LOCAL BUSINESSES SPEAK OUT
Others believe they know what is best for them, but “we are among the people who live closest to the proposed mining site and have the most to lose or potentially gain in terms of Pebble’s fate,” Reimers and Mary Jane Nielson with APC wrote six year ago. “We are a proud people who believe in the rule of the law. The mining project should be judged by the legitimate process established by law.” Not by politics or those with the most money, they wrote..
“These lands are some of the world’s most productive, supporting subsistence fishing and hunting that represent a significant part of our livelihood. They are also a cultural treasure, as our ancestors have existed and subsisted on their bounty for thousands of years. They are our lands, and we have the rights to control what goes on here. Yet our rights to manage these holdings…are being stripped away, seriously threatening our ability to provide for our own people.” It is being supported, they added, “by activists who seem to want to turn all of Alaska into a national park.”
APC is made up of more than 800 local businesses of the Aleut, Dana’ina, Sugpiag, and Yupik native peoples. It has taken an active role in collecting information on the impact of the proposed mine, educating themselves on the facts of the project, and making sure their people have had a place at the table with Pebble.
As Brad Angasan, APC President and lifelong Bristol Bay commercial fisherman, wrote, unless one takes time to understand the permitting process and the facts of the mine proposal, one may continue to believe only what certain environmental groups publicize and want them to think. “We are immersed in opinionated, emotional hype,” he wrote, with “a common belief that resource development will kill the fishery.”
Alaska’s business leaders don’t have the luxury of making emotional decisions or deciding business strategies on public opinion polls, he said. We must consider every aspect. We back Pebble Mine, he wrote.
Considering the greater good is, in this case, the preservation of our people “in villages on the brink of abandonment,” Angasan said. “What we know for certain is that we are in a race against the clock to prevent abandonment of some of our region’s most historic villages. When communities die, cultures die. People need jobs and communities need healthy sustainable economies to survive. These are desperate times for many people.”
As Iliamna Natives Ltd posted last year that the more they’ve learned and have developed a trust with Pebble Partnership, the more their support has grown.
“We just defeated an anti-Pebble candidate for Governor. We just defeated an anti-Pebble ballot initiative. And an overwhelming majority of Alaskans believe Pebble should have a fair shot at the permitting process,” the group wrote.
PEBBLE OFFERS CHANCE FOR LONG-TERM SOLUTIONS
Their decision to support Pebble mine and desire for it to have a fair opportunity to prove its science and engineering was not made by the lure of immediate money and wasn’t a decision made lightly.
The villagers studied the Pebble documents and research, including the in-depth Preliminary Assessment of the Project completed in 2011 in preparation for the permitting process.
During the early development, exploration and study years, between 2004 and 2011, many of them had worked alongside Pebble doing field work and studies for that Assessment. The local people had also taken part in the more than 4,000 meetings with Pebble Partnership, with translation services provided to make sure their native elders could participate in the consultations.
Thousands of people had also taken part in the 350 tours of the mine that Pebble had offered for everyone potentially impacted by the mine. They asked questions, voiced concerns, and learned everything they could about the mine project.
The engineering studies for that Assessment found that the Pebble mineral resources were incredibly rich and had the potential to produce far beyond the first 25 years, which was the initial phase of the project. The mine had the potential to extend “78 years and beyond.”
Expansion appeared most promising to the higher grade minerals in the eastern portions. But they understood the importance of starting off with a smaller initial project to give the mine a chance to go through the scientific reviews and permitting process, then prove itself and its safety to the communities and to Alaskans. Research would continue, though, and based on the conditions existing during those first 20 years, they’d determine if expansion was feasible. Then, or course, they’d have to go through the permitting process all over again.
For the local people, it was a chance they wanted to take. It was an opportunity that could help their villages survive.
It was those long-term prospects that offered them hope for their children and for future generations.
At a 2013 Alaska Native Professional Association panel discussion, members asked John Shively about the life of the mine and he assured them:
This first permit will also be an opportunity to build other infrastructure, like improved roads and energy, with power provided at cost to help the local communities. That would help the local communities get goods cheaper.
“This winter someone sent me a picture of a gallon of orange juice in Dillingham for $24,” said Shively. “We can change the economy out there and in the long run have a very positive impact.”
LOCALS CLAIM THEIR RIGHTS
After years of discussions with Pebble and among their members, a group of 1,500 village businesses including APC, Iliamna Natives Ltd, Kijik Corporation and Tanalian, came together and gave their unanimous support for a fair permitting process for Pebble and other exploration activities throughout the region.
They claimed the right to evaluate Pebble and to base their determination on the merits of the process, not on political interference.
“Jobs and economic activity brought forth by Pebble and other resource development exploration has been significant,” they wrote. “These projects have allowed village corporations to hire local[s] and contract for services offered by various local governments, including tribal organizations. The resources created through seasonal and viable employment by exploration activities have contributed to sustainable communities, created jobs in an area with high rates of unemployment, and created access to energy for many who suffer the high cost of living in many parts of the Bristol Bay region.”
The growing frustration and anger of the local rural communities against interference from outsiders with money, though, is palpable. While honoring and respecting those working in commercial fishing, there’s an undeniable economic imbalance between the local Native peoples who live and work where resources are taken and where nonresidents go to spend their seasonal bounty of wealth, said Angasan.
“For years, we have fought to have our voices heard in the debate about whether or not Pebble should be allowed to proceed through the permitting process and for years we have had to put up with organizations from outside Alaska taking positions without affording us the basic courtesy of hearing our views about this issue,” APC and Iliamna Natives wrote in a letter to the President of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) in February.
Having been engaged in the Pebble issue for some 15 years, they objected to “so-called regional and tribal organizations that tell the world they speak with a united voice on the Pebble issue. Let’s be clear – this is simply not the case.”
They were referring to and disputing the “Bristol Bay Proclamation” from the NCAI which called for the Pebble permitting process to be halted. The Proclamation was issued to sell the perception to the general public around the country that all native people oppose the mine.
Locals knew, but probably most of the general public didn’t, that NCAI is not what it appears. And it clearly doesn’t represent the voices of the local Alaskan native peoples. This Washington, D.C.-based organization is just one example of the outsiders organized against the local people.
- NCAI calls itself one of the most important intertribal political organizations in modern times, playing a critical role in activism, litigation efforts and lobbying activities. But it is a front group. Among its foundation partners are the most radical, wealthy and influential left political organizations in the country, such as George Soros’ Open Society Foundation, Kellogg Foundation, Ford Foundation, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and Northwest Area Foundation — none based in Alaska and all with political agendas far beyond concerns about salmon or the environment. NACAI also partners with the EPA. Many of its legal and policy activities oppose any natural resource development, including pipelines and mining, and lobby for climate change energy policies,
- Just a few grant examples reveal how well NCAI is funded. It received $6.2 million in grants from Kellogg Foundation in October 2017. Ford Foundation gave it $400,000 this year alone. And another progressive nonprofit, W.F. Hewlett Foundation, funded it $950,000 just between 2018-2019.
- NCAI even has its own news organization, Indian Country Today, LLC (a non-profit news company owned by NCAI), with a Washington newsroom for its online publication, along with a new newsroom at Arizona State University. It’s soon to launch its own national television news program. Additional funding came with $1 million earlier this year from the Southern California-based San Manuel Band of Mission Indians, a member of the Southern California Association of Governments.
“The thought of losing the power to exercise self-determination is an insult and contradiction to the Forefathers who devoted their lifetimes fighting for Alaska Native rights,” said Angasan. Our people’s support of Pebble mine goes along with our mandate to protect and preserve the interest of those places we hold sacred, said Angasan, APC President. “The places we come from and continue to live.”
From their voices: “Our Lands are vast. Our Lands are plentiful, sacred and rich with Opportunity. Our Waters are pristine and abundant with life-sustaining purity. These are the elements of a life unique to our People. The relation between the Land and our People exists in perpetuity. This is our Identity, and what we must protect for the generations to come.”
Sandy Szwarc, BSN, RN is a researcher and writer on health and science issues for more than 30 years, published in national and regional publications and public policy institutes. (Pebble Partnership did not contribute to, or have any role in, this series.)