Alaska’s Pebble Partnership – the company trying to build a hotly contested mine in the headwaters of Bristol Bay – has hired a war-zone hardened expert in conflict resolution to take over the company’s public imaging.
Retired U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Mark Hamilton won his stars by negotiating a temporary peace between the warlords of the African country of Somalia in 1993. What he accomplished there attracted the attention of the late ABC News anchor Peter Jennings, who declared Hamilton the network’s “Person of the Week.”
Then a colonel who’d won high marks for helping to negotiate the end to a 12-year-long war in El Salvador only a year earlier, Hamilton’s career took off after he made national news.
Brilliance will be needed if the Pebble Prospect, considered one of the most valuable gold and copper finds on the North American continent, is to move forward. Almost since the mineral discovery, the project has faced strong, aggressive and successful opposition from environmental groups who believe a mine would threaten a watershed home to the largest run of sockeye salmon world.
The mineral find is near the headwaters of the Kvichak River, and though the Kvichak is but one of five major drainages responsible for producing tens of millions of Bristol Bay sockeye salmon every year, environmentalists have successfully painted mine development there as a threat to all of the salmon of all of Bristol Bay.
The Environmental Protection Agency under President Barack Obama decided that a potential mine in the headwaters of the Kvichak posed enough of a threat to the salmon that the proposed mining in drainages north of Iliamna Lake, one of two massive lakes in the drainage, should be prohibited before it was even fully studied.
Pebble sued to overturn that decision, and a U.S. federal court ruled the company should at least be allowed to complete the federal permitting process. The EPA under President Donald Trump has appeared more open mine development.
Long Alaska history
An avid angler, Hamilton served two tours of duty in the 49th state, including one as chief of staff for the Alaskan Command at Elmendorf Air Force Base (now Joint Base Elmendorf Richardson), before retiring from the Army and moving north permanently in 1998 to take the job as president of the University of Alaska.
The West Point graduate, who holds a master’s degree in English literature, led UA for a dozen years before again retiring. He has largely stayed out of the public eye since, although he was a player in the Make Alaska Competitive Coalition earlier in this decade and served on various boards.
Some Alaska businessmen had been lobbying him to run for governor this year, but he rebuffed those approaches saying he wanted time to spend with family in Anchorage. Two of his and wife, Patricia’s, four children live in the state as do five of the couple’s grandchildren.
The Hamilton hire was a major coup for Pebble.
“Mark Hamilton is among Alaska’s best known and most highly respected residents, in large part for his tremendous accomplishments and service to the state over 12 years as President of the University of Alaska,” Pebble Partnership CEO Tom Collier said in a Monday media release, which noted that Hamilton still holds status as President
Emeritus of the University of Alaska.
Hamilton was highly respected for his leadership of the University at time when it was booming thanks tohigh oil prices that filled state coffers with money and fueled a state spending spree. Oil revenues have since dropped dramatically, and the university is struggling in the wake of funding cutbacks as the state continues a steady slide into a worsening recession.
Lawmakers are now in special session in Juneau where they are to take up proposals from Gov. Bill Walker to increase taxes to try to close a state budget gap. The state’s budget problems and the related recession have led some to consider Pebble development, and the jobs it would create, though mining remains generally unpopular among Alaskans and wildly unpopular among the commercial fishermen from Bristol Bay, a significant portion of whom live in the Lower 48.
Collier hit the good-for-Alaska theme in his Pebble statement, saying “we fully expect Mark’s vision, his leadership and his credibility to materially advance our efforts to re-position the Pebble Project, to ensure it provides meaningful and enduring benefits to the people of Bristol Bay and Alaska, and to help create the social and political conditions necessary to permit this project in the years ahead.”
Hamilton, for his part, argued for “reason.”
“Like other Alaska mines, I have every confidence that Pebble will be developed safely, in a manner that protects the clean water and healthy fish and wildlife that all Alaskans value,” he said in the prepared statement. “Perhaps more importantly, I think Pebble is a critically important project at this juncture in our state’s history, and one that will make tremendous long-term contributions to the economic and social well-being of our residents.”
Peacemaking or war?
“I believe in reason. I believe in coming to the table to contest different opinions respectfully and honestly, and that refusing to hear the evidence that supports opinions contrary to our own signals the rejection of the dialectic and the end of reason,” Hamilton said.
“That is where the Pebble Project, like so many contentious issues in American life, stands today. But I intend to appeal to my fellow Alaskans to rise above that caustic dynamic, and to consider this project based on its merits – on the facts, rather than on fear – and I have every confidence they will rise to that challenge.”
The facts on Pebble remain in dispute. Environmentalists are firmly of the view the mine cannot be developed without grave threat to aquatic environments. Pebble contends the project can be done safely.
“We take pride in our good stewardship,” Collier told the Alaska Resource Development Council in early October.
“We’re not going to bring cyanide into the region,” he added, because people oppose using the chemical to leach gold out of rock. Collier said that decision would force Pebble to leave about 15 percent of the gold in the rock, but the company is willing to do it.
He said the company is also willing take another 15 percent hit to its bottom line by taking mining tails suspected of holding the potential to leech acid and storing them in a special containment area.
The company also reduced the size of the mine. Collier said that the now proposed 5.4-square-mile footprint is small enough that it might almost have satisfied Obama’s EPA.
Whether Pebble can sell this remains to be seen.