The state Legislature is being asked to study whether a potentially world class copper and gold prospect at the headwaters of Alaska's Bristol Bay can coexist with that region's premier commercial sockeye salmon fishery.
A hearing is set for Friday, following a request by the state Board of Fisheries that the Legislature study Alaska's permitting standards and environmental safeguards and take any steps it considers necessary to provide "strict protections" for game and fish habitat in the region.
The hearing could nudge forward resolutions seeking an independent review by the National Academy of Sciences that have gone nowhere with lawmakers over the last year.
While Pebble Mine hasn't proposed a specific permitting plan, "the board is still very concerned about the Pebble Mine development because of its potential magnitude," board chair Vince Webster wrote legislative leaders earlier this year. Mine opponents and proponents "have publicly stated that this development could be larger than any mining operation ever created in Alaska."
How big the mine gets -- if it gets developed -- remains to be seen. Opponents say the footprint could cover 15 square miles, with a gaping open pit and network of roads and power lines that would fundamentally change the landscape and disrupt, if not destroy, a way of life.
Supporters acknowledge the development could be huge but accuse critics of using scare tactics to try to quash it. Supporters say it could create up to 1,000 long-term jobs and pump renewed life into rural communities. The 10 billion tons of ore could be mined for decades.
Pebble Limited Partnership could be in permitting early next year, and its chief executive, John Shively, said that process could suss out details such as size and economic feasibility.
"This is not about trading mining for fish. Nobody would do that. I mean, it would be foolish to do that," said Shively, whose partnership includes subsidiaries of Anglo American and Northern Dynasty Minerals Limited. "The issue is, can the two coexist in an area that is economically depressed and provide some opportunities to people who don't have them?"
But some who live in the area, make their living on fishing, or feed their families with Alaska wildlife reject any suggestion they need economic rescue. They know Alaska is a natural resource state -- oil helps fuel the state's economy and they themselves live off the land and water. But they don't see the need to develop in Bristol Bay, whose watershed is home to the world's largest commercial sockeye salmon fishery. And they worry Pebble could open the door to further development in the region.
"Even though we had hard times in the family ... we had a good life because of fish," said Violet Willson, a 76-year-old retired commercial fisher from Naknek in southwest Alaska. "And I wouldn't want to see that destroyed by anything. And what I know about the contamination from mines, you know, it's a very dangerous thing to mess around with. ... I just hope and pray that this would not happen."
In 2008, voters rejected a proposed law aimed at creating stricter water-pollution discharge rules for large mines that could have been used to block the Pebble development. Since then, there have been PR campaigns of sorts on both sides -- community grants through Pebble's charitable fund; TV ads by Trout Unlimited urging people to weigh risk vs. reward -- seeking buy-in for their positions.
"This is not going to be over anytime soon," said Tim Bristol, Alaska program director for Trout Unlimited, which plans to run ads for the next several months. Ideally, he said, he'd like to see no mine -- "or at least nothing of the type and scale" of Pebble.
It remains a highly contentious issue.
Webster wrote his letter after the Board of Fisheries was asked to recommend establishment of a fish refuge in the Kvichak and Nushagak river drainages, to protect habitat that could be affected by the mine.
While many believed the permitting process is inadequate to protect fish in the drainages, he said, many others who also lived in the region felt creating a refuge would thwart economic development and restrict subsistence uses. Some also were comfortable with the permitting process in place, he said.
"One thing that everyone, on all sides of the issue, had in common was concern for the protection of Bristol Bay fisheries," he wrote. "They disagreed on what that protection should be."