Big ripples

President Joe Biden and Allanah Hurley, an Alaska leader of Pebble Mine opposition, address the media horde at a May celebration of the president’s declaration “the mine will not be built.” photo


The Pebble Mine saga continues

In a move sure to anger Lower 48 environmentalists and much of Alaska, Gov. Mike Dunleavy has decided to sue the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) over its blocking of a proposed Pebble Mine in the Iliamna Lake drainage of Southwest Alaska.

And though the lawsuit is sure to upset many Alaska, it might be the last, best chance the state will ever get to secure the rights to self-government that Alaskans thought were granted at statehood in 1959.

A variety of Alaska legal experts, both left and right, this week agreed the state’s appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court is a crapshoot. One called it a classic “hail Mary.” Think Dallas Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach throwing the football 50 yards to Drew Pearson to win the NFC divisional playoff game against the Minnesota Vikings in 1975 or the 43-yard “Hail Murray” Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray threw to secure a last-minute, upset victory over the Buffalo Bills in 2020. 

Hail Marys more often fail than succeed, but there was general agreement that in a court with a majority of justices concerned about the ever-widening reach of federal authority, there might be a chance to wrest back some of the state’s rights to make decisions fundamental to the state’s future.

Whether the state would ever approve development of the mine is a total unknown. Everyone involved with the proposed project agrees there are difficult technical problems involved in trying to find a way to deal with mining tails in a safe and environmentally friendly way.

The Environmental Protection Agency simply declared this impossible. In a statement issued by Dunleavy’s office, Alaska Attorney General Treg Taylor attacked that conclusion and accused the EPA of relying “on undefined terms and subjective standards instead of sound science to bypass the regular state and federal permitting processes.”

He argued that if the EPA could do this in Alaska, it could do it anywhere, apparently overlooking how the federal government has become increasingly accustomed to meddling in Alaska affairs in ways it wouldn’t think of doing in other states, sometimes legally and sometimes not.

Four years ago – noting that the National Park Service has no authority to police state-owned, navigable waterways – the high court reprimanded that agency for chasing Alaska moose hunter John Sturgeon off the wild, seldom-visited and state-owned Nation River in the state’s Interior because a pair ranger didn’t like the looks of his small hovercraft.

That the latest lawsuit is about who gets to decide whether the Pebble Prospect is ever mined and not about whether mining is actually allowed did nothing to appease mine opponents.

Good guys vs. bad guys

The Bristol Bay Defense Fund – a coalition of seven environmental, tribal and commercial fishing groups – quickly labeled the filing “legally and factually unjustified…little more than a publicity stunt filed on behalf of an unscrupulous mining company, Pebble Limited Partnership, that has repeatedly misrepresented its record and misled regulators, its investors, Congress, and the general public. The EPA’s authority to protect Bristol Bay under the Clean Water Act stands on an extensive and robust scientific and technical record that spans two decades and three presidential administrations.

“Alaskans and people across the country overwhelmingly support EPA’s action to protect Bristol Bay, and do not support the Pebble Mine.”

If the lawsuit is a “publicity stunt,” it would appear a bad one for a politician who has already weathered one recall attempt while governor.   Dunleavy’s action is almost certain to make more Alaskans unhappy than happy.

Public-opinion polling in the 49th state has consistently found strong opposition to Pebble’s plans for a world-class copper mine.

For at least a decade, the polls have shown 60 percent or more of the state’s residents opposed to the mine, largely because of fears – real or unreal – that a mine could threaten the tens of millions of sockeye salmon that annually return to the 40,000-square-mile Bristol Bay watershed, an area the size of the state of Kentucky. 

Once home to one of the state’s most valuable resources, the Bay has seen its fortunes decline as farmed salmon have transformed the global market for fish. Bay sockeye salmon prices this year hit a record low of 50 cents per pound.

Copper, because of the demand for the mineral in an increasingly electrifying world, was today trading at about eight times per pound more than what Bay fisherman were getting for those fish.

But that comparison is unfair to the fish, given the copper price was for a processed product and the fish have yet to be processed. A better comparison would be between copper and what is called “first wholesale value,” the price at which the processors sell the fish.

The wholesale price is usually three to three and half times higher than the “ex-vessel” price paid fishermen, according to Alaska Department of Fish and Game data.  So a valid, best-case comparison today, might put salmon at about $2 per pound  versus copper at about $4 per pound.

Plus, if you figure in the bonuses Bay fishermen can get for better handling of their fish and multiply that to correct for the cost of processing and what those fish sell for you wholesale, you can get to at least $3.20 per pound this year, making salmon and copper close in value,

Still, the volatility of the market for wild salmon and the fact the industry provides few local jobs has made at least some in the Bristol Bay region conclude the mine could be a good thing if mining could be conducted with no significant, long-term environmental impact.

Over the past decade, according to the Alaska Department of Labor, the Bay’s fish processing employment has varied greatly from year to year with a low of 4,030 workers in 2012 to a peak of 6,203 in 2019, but one thing has never changed: Most of them are from somewhere other than Alaska. from a low of 85 percent in 2013 to a high of 93 percent in 2020.

Everyone in the region does seem to agree trading away a valuable, renewable resource for a nonrenewable one, even if it was temporarily more valuable, would be the height of stupidity.

But there are those, Dunleavy apparently among them, who want a thorough look at whether mining has evolved to the point where it can be done with minimal environmental impact.

“Our constitution is clear: Alaska is responsible for utilizing, developing, and conserving all of the State’s natural resources for the maximum benefit of its people,” the governor said in that statement from his office. “Bureaucrats in Washington D.C. are exercising unbridled and unlawful power to choke off any further discussion on this important decision affecting so many Alaskans.”

His words pretty well reflected the Alaska view at statehood almost 65 years ago. Alaska was then America’s “Last Frontier,” but frontier values were fast giving way to a new environmental movement.

Earth Day arrived about a decade later, and shortly thereafter began a battle for Alaska’s future. By 1977, the late Gov. Jay Hammond, an Alaska icon, would be bemoaning Alaska’s perceived role as the “oil barrel to the nation and national park to the world.”

The former role has since faded. Alaska has gone from providing about a quarter of the nation’s oils in the 1980s to now being a small, fourth-rate producer.

Texas, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), produce 42.4 percent of U.S. crude in 2022 with New Mexico second at 11.1 percent and North Dakota close behind at 9.9 percent.

Alaska trailed in at fourth at 3.9 percent just ahead of evergreen Colorado at 3.7 percent.

California – which is trying hard to rid itself of oil and gas production plus any machinery directly using either hydrocarbon – isn’t all that far behind Alaska in oil production these days.

.The EIA report for April of this year ranked California production just behind that of Alaska which had slipped behind Colorado and Oklahoma for the month.

In recent years, pressure from environmental interests and U.S. national politics has seriously dimmed the interest in Alaska among major U.S. oil and gas producers.

Royal-Dutch Shell abandoned efforts to develop new oil finds in the Chukchi Sea in 2015 citing the high costs of production in the remote area and the unpredictability of national regulation. It left Alaska only five years before BP, formerly British Petroleum, abandoned, citing better opportunities elsewhere. It had for decades previously run the Prudhoe Bay oil field once among one of the nation’s biggest producers of oil.

A year after BP’s departure, the Biden administration suspended oil and gas leases in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge that had been approved by former President Donald Trump and environmentalists celebrated.

The story was much the same earlier this year after the EPA ruled that any copper mine in or around Lake Iliamna “will have unacceptable adverse effects on anadromous fishery areas in the
Bristol Bay watershed.”

The EPA ruling essentially marked the defacto creation of a new national park given the agency’s observation that the entire watershed demanded protection due to the unique nature of the area.

Because no hatchery fishes are raised or released in the watershed, Bristol Bay’s salmon populations are entirely wild and self-sustaining. Bristol Bay is remarkable as one of the last places on Earth with such bountiful and sustainable harvests of wild salmon,” the agency’s ruling said. “One of the main factors leading to the success of these fisheries is the fact that its diverse aquatic habitats are largely untouched and pristine, unlike the waters that support many other salmon fisheries worldwide.”

Biden later stared at the Whitehouse party to celebrate the EPA decision.

“‘In the end, we used our authority under the Clean Water Act to ban the disposal of mine waste and Bristol Bay watershed, period,” Biden said, to cheers from the invited guests, Alaska Public Media’s Liz Ruskin reported. “That means the mine will not be built.”

Many, both in Alaska and out, would argue stopping Pebble was a good thing because Alaskans can’t be trusted to manage the resources of the far north, though the worst of the environmental abuses in Alaska history happened in the Alaska Territory under the auspices of the federal government.

Alaska’s history

“Under the joint control of a politically potent absentee industry and a federal bureau which the industry dominates, instead of being regulated by it, Alaska’s greatest natural resource, and once the nation’s greatest fishery resource, the Pacific salmon, is being destroyed,” the late Ernest Grueing, a future U.S. Senator from Alaska, charged in 1957. “The Alaska salmon runs reached in 1955 the lowest point in nearly half a century, although there was a slight upturn in 1956. President Eisenhower for three successive years has had to proclaim Alaska’s fishing communities disaster areas….

“In neighboring British Columbia and in the states of Washington and Oregon the salmon industry is thriving and growing, despite the handicaps of power dams, pulp and paper mills, the sewage of large communities, and other accompaniments of modern industrial development which Alaska lacks, thereby illustrating the superiority of home management which Congress persists in not according Alaska.”

The development of Alaska and the furtherance of its salmon fisheries were not then thought of in the context of the dichotomy of the present with its narrowly focused view that what happens to salmon in freshwater is more important than what happens in the marine environment where the fish spend most of their lives.

But then America was a different nation as the 1950s drew to an end than it is today.

The state of Alaska was born at a time when the nation still had an Ayn Randesque-vision of manifest destiny powered by the mines and steel mills that had turned the United States into the industrial powerhouse that produced the machinery capable of crushing the short-lived, totalitarian empires of both Nazi Germany, which had swallowed most of Europe, and Imperial Japan, which had conquered a goodly chunk of Southeast Asia and most of the Pacific Islands.

This view of the nation, however, was about to change, leaving the fledgling state to grow up in a time when Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” was warning that human development was poisoning the globe and “The Population Bomb” of Paul Ehrlich forecast that a skyrocketing global population, driven not just by the rate of reproduction but a rapid decline in infant mortality and an equally rapid climb in human lifespans thanks to modern medicine, would lead to widespread global starvation. 

Such thinking served to transform the way people thought of the U.S. as a whole. The industrialists once viewed as having “built America” turned into the rape, pillage and move-on gang that destroyed America, and most especially Western America.

As James Pogue wrote last year in critiquing the 1948, Pulitizer-Prize-winning work of the late Bernard DeVoto,  “the difficult and illuminating thing about reading DeVoto today (is that) in all of his writings he is resistant to the idea that (the) settlers and small-time workers of the West were the engines of the genocide and despoliation that came to the region in their wake.

“In DeVoto’s telling, these people were complicated moral agents and often victims themselves, caught up in a churning machine of capital and government that, by the 20th century, had created a Western system defined by ‘laissez-faire capitalism with socialism, ownership rights without responsibility, investment but not regulation.’ It was a picture of the corporatism that now colours every single part of American life, and DeVoto saw it as emerging in its first clear form in the government protection of powerful extractive industries in the Mountain West.

“The picture here is very different from the one we get about Western history today, one that focuses on whites as the agents of genocide and ‘settler-colonialism.'”

Pogue went on to defend DeVoto’s chronicling of the very early West as a more accurate telling of what happened during the country’s great Westward movement, but Pogue captured well the legacy of that time as it is known to many today,  who see a white race once celebrated for “conquering” the West transformed into an invasive species that destroyed a mythical, indigenous Eden.

The political forces at play in Alaska today have their roots in these dueling visions, which are prone to focus on the Western half of the continent and overlook the Eastern half where the rape and pillage took on a different look over time.

A once largely denuded Eastern seaboard significantly reforested itself. Abandoned open pit mines in the Midwest were transformed in recreational playgrounds. Improved farming techniques cleared the air in the infamous “Dust Bowl” region of the Great Plains and lifted its role, according to the Encylopedia of the Great Plains, to that of “a continental granary feeding the world.”

Not that the environmental problems facing the North American continent south of the Alaska-Canada border have disappeared.  One of the fundamental problems of our time is that the old cliche stating that the solution to pollution is dilution hasn’t changed while the human population has hugely changed.

It has grown constantly despite wars and pandemics. And more people inevitably create more pollution making dilution at the ecosystem level ever more difficult though there are hints of progress in places.

The National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration is forecasting a smaller than average “dead zone” of 4,155 square miles – an area nearly the size of Connecticut – in the Gulf of Mexico this year.

“The dead zone, or hypoxic area, is an area of low oxygen that can kill fish and other marine life. It occurs every summer and is primarily a result of excess nutrient pollution from human activities in cities and farm areas throughout the Mississippi River watershed,” according to the federal agency. 

The Mississippi watershed is the largest in North America and drains 32 states from New York in the northeast to Montana in the northwest via major tributaries such as the Missouri, Ohio, Yellowstone, Platte, Arkansas, Tennesee and Red rivers among others. 

Each of those tributaries is likely to contain more pollution than is to be found in all of Alaska’s rivers of combined given the state’s limited urbanization, mining and especially agriculture.

Nationally, agriculture is the country’s biggest water polluter, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. And a significant polluter of the air, according to the EPA, which says the agriculture industry produced 10 percent of U.S. greenhouse gases in 2021. 

Yet agriculture – which has transformed about 52 percent of the U.S. land base, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) – is predominately viewed as a change for good whereas mining with a comparatively tiny footprint is generally considered bad, primarily because of the shoddy manner in which some mining operations have been conducted in the past.

How cleanly mining can be done in the future is a subject of considerable debate with a peer-reviewed study of the Pacific salmon watersheds of the continental West published in Applied Ecology last summer concluding “that the risks and impacts of mining have been underestimated across the watersheds of northwestern North America.”

The study did not, however, call for an end to mining along the continents Pacific Rim.

“Given that mining plays a role for the needs of society, there is an urgent need for current and future mining projects to be operated in such a way that protects our last remaining healthy watersheds and abundant salmonid populations,” the authors wrote.

The state of Alaska’s argument before the U.S. Supreme Court tracks that view that mining in Alaska should not be unilaterally as Taylor put it, but thoroughly studied to see if there is a plan that will allow for it “to be operated in such a way that protects our last remaining healthy watersheds and abundant salmonid populations,”

“Alaska has some of the most robust environmental permitting requirements in the world ensuring development of critical natural resources occurs side-by-side with the protection of human health and the environment,” Alaska Commissioner of Environmental Commissioner Jason Brune argued in the Dunleavy administration statement. “Congress intended Alaska to have primary responsibility over land and resource management decisions under the Clean Water Act’s framework of cooperative federalism. EPA robbed us of this opportunity.”

“Alaska’s Title 16 permitting process is designed to ensure conservation of fish and fish habitat. But these statutory protections were flouted by EPA before Alaska’s expert habitat and fish biologists had the opportunity to weigh in,” added Fish and Game Commissioner Doug Vincent-Lang. “The state’s career experts should be allowed to do their job without having Washington bureaucrats swooping in to prohibit an action before we even received a permit application.”

And lastly there was Natural Resources Commissioner John Boyle arguing that “the Alaska Statehood Compact and Cook Inlet Land Exchange were meant to ensure the State of Alaska would have the opportunity to responsibly develop its resources under its robust permitting regime. EPA cannot unilaterally ignore these monumental Congressional actions.”

But it did.

Whether the Supreme Court will agree that EPA overstepped its authority, or consider the idea that Congress should stop enacting statutes that delegate broad authority to the vast federal bureaucracy sans judicially identifiable standards that enable judicial review of how agencies exercise those authorities, only time will tell.























15 replies »

  1. The precedents being set by the Feds in not honoring the commitment to the State of Alaska on its statehood and the example of bad faith in not completing the designated land swap show that nothing can be expected from the Feds except greed and avarice for power. As for the environmentalists, they are far to the right of conversationalists who still want land used for human good while preserving the environment for future generations. If the environmentalists have their way, there will be no humans left to sully their precious earth. In short, there has been an over-reaction to Silent Spring, a book I have also read. There is a middle way that has not been trod due to the power of the environmental movement backed by the billionaires of Davos. If this continues, humanity will pay dearly. Alaska has no choice but to stand up for its rights before the Biden Administration packs the Supreme Court.

  2. “Everyone in the region does seem to agree trading away a valuable, renewable resource for a nonrenewable one, even if it was temporarily more valuable, would be the height of stupidity.”

    Does anyone actually think that a mine on a small tributary of one river in the region, even if the absolutely worst case scenario were to occur, would entirely wipe out the renewable resource known as Bristol Bay red salmon?

    • If pumping fails and overflows occur within 20 years it’s expected to raise water copper concentrations 500-1000 times 35 miles downstream.
      ( thats not talking about a catastrophic event just overflow)
      Its not one little drainage. Its talarik , the koktuli and 4 others into the largest freshwater lake in Alaska.

      The mine is going to grow massively beyond what most people understand. It will grow for 80 years minimum. Probably many times that .

      Also its not just copper , when I looked at the core samples there was huge amounts of gold copper and 5 other minerals easily identifiable.
      When you “dig” into it it’s quite shocking the valuable minerals in the core samples.

      Im for mining but responsible mining that benefits all of Alaska in fullest amount possible.
      A foreign conglomerate is not the answer in an unreplacable ecosystem.

      • Who expects the copper levels to increase 500-1000 times, and what are they basing it on? Have you read the Pebble plan?

        Lots of foreign interest and faulty talking points there DPR, are you an agent of the Chinese Communist Party or do you just push their narrative for free?

      • Steve o ,
        First I will address your hachet smear job – china ?
        Naaa- I bet putin put me up to it !
        People that don’t know how to create a fact based argument tend towards ad hominem attacks or bluster. You did both. Nice 👍

        The fact you think its one little tributary means you are not educated enough to have a solid discussion.

        I could outline the other mistakes you made but let’s wait until you are more knowledgeable so I don’t waste my time or the readers .

        Give yourself a month or two to study the area . The ore body potential then we can discuss in a productive manner. Positive manner.

        Maybe go get boots on the ground if you haven’t.

        I’ve walked all over the area and actually have core samples in possession. From drilling at pebble.

        Family member a lead data researcher for the environmental firm working with northern dynasty / pebble.

      • DPR,

        It would have been much quicker to just say you are incapable of answering the questions posed…but you do you, and keep making long, winding responses that do not address the issue at hand and only serve to deflect.

  3. When oil hit $140 a barrel, Coal companies were eager to reenter the coal areas of Kentucky. The governor used this as a way of forcing mining companies to reclaim abandoned strip mines (a law in effect that was ignored in the past), recontour the land, add topsoil, and plant perennial grasses that elk prefer. Kentucky now has a huntable population of over 10,000 elk, the largest number of elk east of the Mississippi.

  4. Steelers vs. Oakland 1972 “Immaculate Reception” Terry Bradshaw and Franco Harris….

  5. Yes Alaska should be free to govern itself.
    Feds go home!

    60% of our population says no pebble mine . = decision made.

    Dunleavey and Tregs choice to file lawsuit at this moment over pebble is ethically suspect.
    Who is financing them ?

    What is not mentioned in this article- HDR one of Alaskas premier highly respected environmental consultant firm was hired by the pebble conglomerate to analyze mine impacts on fish and waterways of the Bristol bay region. To present to epa for permitting. Fish in every mine local stream and connected lake were catalogued. Hydrology was considered. Water quality samples were obsessively monitored and analyzed. Impact plans were analyzed,
    HDR professionally analyzed the impacts. The evidence indicated a major mine like pebble would be a hazard to water quality and fish. The water really was clean and their was documented significant fish stocks. It was clear that this mine would be an environmental hazard.

    What do you suppose the foreign investor conglomerate known as pebble did after the significant risks were determined ?
    They fired HDR and canned the negative documentation. They then hired a pro pebble firm to give different data . Feel free to check my statement by contacting the man in charge of the pebble data collection from HDR at the time. His name was Paul. His collection teams will say similar.

    This is not your friendly neighborhood miner. This a foreign company who hides research that shows pebble is problematic. Then hires a data collection company to produce results more in their favor.
    Its a dirty business backed by big money and Alaska will have their resources taken and waterways polluted with minimal permanent gain.
    They also hired big hitters to influence public opinion.

    pebble prospects are so huge that the final impacts on bristol bay watershed are currently understated .the mine will grow far beyond its current projected size. The mineral analysis team found resources there beyond what is usually discussed.

    Epa is a necessary evil to help protect our states water and environment for future generations who don’t have a loud voice.

    Dunleavy and Treg are suspect . Who is influencing them?

    Yes the feds should be out .

    It should be noted that Don Trump Jr was a primary reason pebble didn’t move forward under Trump . He recognized first hand the unique nature of Bristol bay from a sportsman’s perspective. He twisted his father’s arm to slow walk the permit process. Despite financial pressures. Obviously a vague messy description of his actions,it was in the news so look it up there.

    Alaska is a seismic hotbed. Large scale Pebble mine as it is proposed is environmentally risky.

    • Dunleavy and Taylor could be slipping a Trojan horse into the game, or they could legitimately believe that, like you, that “Alaska should be free to govern itself.”

      It’s impossible to tell. I have no doubt HDR found problems. That’s clear given the various plans for tailings storage that Pebble has suggested since this project began. That’s the big problem. Can they come up with a solution everyone agrees is workable? Hell if I know.

      But if one believes “Alaskla should be free to govern itself,” shouldn’t Alaska be the entity making that decision. The EPA does set a rather troubling precedent, you have to admit, in that the federal/natural view for some time now has bene that “Alaska isn’t capable of governing Alaska, and thus shouldn’t be allowed to do much governing of itself.”

      • Yes I agree. Regarding epa .
        The question – is “Alaska” making decisions or are heavily monied interests making the decisions regardless of what the majority of the Alaska population wants?
        Through data control and documented narrative control.

        Pushing a project for 20 years regardless of public interest/ opinion until they twist the data and receive the answers peble owners ( northern dynasty- or whoever owns pebble this week) want doesn’t sound like honorable action at play.

        Epa protections are arguably different than a federal park service restricting low impact land usage against a private citizen living his human rights within reason and hunting.
        Truly apples and oranges

        Northern dynasty eta is a foreign conglomerate corporation .
        No civil rights were lined out in our constitution for business or financial corporations business conglomerates especially foreign ones where most share holders are not American and therefore are not fully represented by our constitution.
        Apples and oranges when compared to private citizen usage.

        Also way more environmental repercussions are at stake. Arguably a permanent change in landscape and catastrophic risk.

        Yes technically the state has the constitutional right to govern its waters. Without epa .

        So hopefully the supremes recognize that and force the feds hand but then it’s imperative alaska makes the right long term decision. Imo leave pebble alone unless they find safe mining methods.

      • I’d be more comfortable with the idea that Alaska is well positioned to govern ourselves on matters of multi-generational environmental protection if our decision makers (and populace) did not so consistently move to the Lower-48 when they were done earning a paycheck.

        We, in Alaska, have demonstrated extreme short term thinking in the past 25 years. Those of us who care what this place is going to be 50 years from now may be right to nervous about how the short-timers want it governed.

        Oh well. That lament, four dollars and a nickel gets me a cop of coffee.

      • DPR,
        If you think the anti-mining interests that are opposed to pebble aren’t pushing foreign interests using twisted data and have taken nothing but honorable action, well then you haven’t been paying attention.

    • Let’s not forget that the Pebble deposit sits on state land designated for mineral exploration and development.

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