Pebble’s progress necessarily slow
• With development 10 years away, Anglo American courts the people sharing Pebble’s valleys
Editor’s note: As energy issues continue to plague the country, the future development of Cook Inlet’s resources remains in question. Coal at Chuitna, gold at Pebble Mine, numerous offshore gas reserves and the reduction of oil flow from the 12 platforms currently churning in the Inlet point to the need for both economically sound and environmentally responsible development.
This is the fifth in a five-part series where the Homer Tribune looks at how Cook Inlet has transformed from a humble, twisting waterway to one of the most resource-rich areas in the nation.
By Naomi Klouda
HOMER TRIBUNE/Naomi Klouda - Children at Camp Juvenaly listen to a safety presentation.
Off a dirt road between Iliamna and Nondalton, about 30 children are attending Camp Juvenaly.
When they aren’t swimming or fishing or building or eating, they sit in school desks along the gravel banks of a tundra lake rimmed by wispy paper birch trees. Russian Orthodox Priest David Askoak teaches them spiritual and cultural issues, and others in the community join in.
“Safety is all about being ready,” an Alaska State Trooper tells the restless group. He first holds up a flotation device, and then a helmet to illustrate his point. “Do you know why you are luckier than lots of other kids your age in this state?”
No one answers.
“Because you – when you’re only 12 or 14 or younger – get to drive a Honda when lots of other kids in Alaska can’t do that,” he explains.
A few children smile at each other.
In many ways, that’s where the luck for children at Camp Juvenaly runs out. A dying economy offers little future for children, and tribal leaders say it is time to forge a new path. Even if it means taking an unpopular position of accepting employment at the Pebble Prospect.
Some 16 miles away from Camp Juvenaly, a crew drills core samples in the rich tundra, searching for hints of gold and copper. The pre-feasibility work is an important step to determine whether a mine is economically and environmentally viable. A few of the children’s older siblings, aunts, uncles – maybe even parents – have worked for Pebble so far – always part-time or seasonal. For the most part, unemployment numbers run high in this, as well as a dozen other villages in the area.
“We feel so alone. It’s up to us to re-invent an economy,” said Lisa Reimers, Chief Executive Officer of Iliamna Development Corp.
A lawsuit brought in July by Nunamta Aulukestai – a collection of Bristol Bay villages – pits members joined under the Bristol Bay Native Association against one another as either pro- or anti- Pebble. An injunction filed in Alaska Superior Court seeks to stop the Pebble Project on claims that state regulators are not adequately protecting the land. Even in the exploratory stage, the group contends that wildlife and habitat are adversely impacted.
Pebble officials, though not named in the lawsuit aimed at the State of Alaska Department of Natural Resources, filed a motion on Friday to intervene in the suit, said Pebble Partnership CEO John Shively.
If the court grants Nunamta’s injunction request, the environmental studies currently conducted at the site could be shut down. Shively said the studies typically continue through December.
Reimers said she remains concerned that villagers who want jobs would then be out of luck.
“I was asking them (the Nunamta group) what are we supposed to do for jobs?” Reimers explained. “One of the people answered, ‘figure it out on your own.’ That is why we feel so alone. We are out here trying to find solutions.”
Iliamna’s Tribal Chief Elia Anelon has said he “isn’t for or against the project.” It’s a sentiment echoed by several others interviewed in Newhalen and Iliamna. They like the exploratory stages because it means more jobs. Lodge help is needed, and drillers’ helpers are hired at more than $18 an hour.
Getting to know you
HOMER TRIBUNE/Noami Klouda - Anglo American’s Angi Hunter (left) meets with villagers on a recent trip.
Work that started five years ago by Northern Dynasty continues this season, all under the heading of environmental studies needed to complete preparatory work filing for more than 60 permits. The Canadian company was joined by Anglo American two years ago, forming a 50-50 financial venture known as the Pebble Partnership.
An Anglo group from London spent time traveling the region last week. They looked at social and economic issues facing people around Lake Iliamna – a 77-mile lake that is the largest in Alaska. Informal luncheons and an elders’ conference provided forums for discussion.
Led by Anglo’s Alaska representative Paul Henry, the forums offered an opportunity for Angi Hunter – Anglo’s new group head of government and social affairs – to get to know the indigenous Athabascan and Yup’iit people.
These original Alaskans have lived the land for centuries, their existence dependent on salmon, caribou and moose – as well as one of the only fresh-water species of seal known to exist.
But instead of considering what Pebble might take from them, one of Hunter’s first questions at the Wednesday lunch was: “What does Pebble give you?”
The question carries a positive spin, as the former public relations person for British Petroleum is well-practiced. She speaks in a firm, but charismatic British accent.
“What Pebble gives us is the chance that we can talk about these things ahead of time – what the plans are,” answered the village health aide, Louise Anelon.
“It’s a little scary because we don’t know if they are going to disregard us,” Sue Anelon, Louise’s sister-in-law, adds. “It’s scary because it’s beyond our control – these certain economic things.”
Henry, introducing Hunter to a small luncheon group, said that it’s too early to quiz Hunter about the Pebble Prospect.
“This is mainly an orientation,” Henry explained in his own British accent. “She is here to understand our involvement in Alaska – this is a long development in terms of the copper business.”
Hunter told the group she was looking for a company like BP when she first took an interest in Anglo American.
“At BP, we came to think of ‘BP’ as meaning beyond petroleum,” she explained. “We look at what can we do as a company that goes beyond.”
Hunter said Anglo struck her as an international company whose goal is to “go beyond.” In this case, by leaving lasting benefits for those in the shadow of the Pebble Mine whose gold reserves are estimated to keep workers busy for 50 years.
“How you do that is by building relationships with the governments and the communities where Anglo does business,” she said. Toward this end, she has spent time traveling Anglo mines in Johannesburg, Chile and Peru.
“I am very interested in the communities where we have a social/economic impact,” she said. “On these trips, I was interested in people we’ve helped – particularly women – and hearing their stories. I was deeply impressed.”
Hunter was referring to Anglo Zimele, an enterprise investing in 380 local businesses in Anglo’s seven South African mining districts. Henry said similar programs exist in Chile and Brazil.
“Whereas, in the past, a mine’s sphere of influence was fenced around the mine, Anglo tries to reach outside that sphere and provide a positive impact,” Hunter told the women.
At the lunch, Sue Anelon, CEO of Iliamna Natives Limited, expressed concern about the lack of mining-science related studies in the school curriculum. She questioned that, if future Pebble jobs – scientists, engineers, geologists, metal-experts – will be available for elementary-age children, then why isn’t there a program available now?
“We’re told it’s too political to allow that in the curriculum,” Anelon said.
Hunter suggested an after-school program, and Henry mentioned that Anchorage and Fairbanks school districts already have such programs in place. They are funded – at least in part – through the Alaska Mining and Energy Resources Fund.
Pebble Public Affairs Spokesman Mike Heatwole noted that another program for core driller apprenticeship was just completed this spring, in time to employ several of the 15 people who participated.
For this, Pebble won recognition from the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development Office of Apprenticeship.
Getting pushed over
HOMER TRIBUNE/Naomi Klouda - CEO Lisa Reimers founded “Engaging Communities” as a way to share documentations of information gathered about Pebble with other villages.
Visiting mining officials weren’t always open or communicative to local residents as they set to the task of studying gold resources on nearby state land as early as 1988. Reimers, CEO of Iliamna Development Corp., said historical experience shows companies typically came into the region and did what they wanted – without regard for the Natives.
“We watched them come in, start up businesses and not hire local people,” Reimers said. “They came to take what they wanted from our land, make their own money, and then leave. We were bitter and we realized we didn’t stand up enough for ourselves.”
When Northern Dynasty officials began landing in the village about six years ago, they held a meeting to talk with locals. At one of the first meetings, Reimers said she felt the “brush-off.” At some point, she confronted the lead person.
“I told him, ‘You’re at my eye level and you’re going to have to deal with me,’” she recalled. “He wasn’t going to ignore my questions or my concerns – I wanted him to know that.”
So far, Anglo seems much more sensitive to village concerns. Already, Sir Mark Moody-Stuart, a knighted London geologist and former chairman of Anglo’s board, made his rounds to soothe village concerns about their environment.
Pebble, the most contentious of any Alaska development prospect on the table today, is seeing a battle waged to protect the vast watershed that shields the earth’s possibly last intact wild salmon runs. Now, Moody-Stuart has retired from the board, replaced by Sir John Parker. Also knighted, Parker is a visiting Oxford fellow, fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering and former board chairman of the Bank of England. Residents of Iliamna Lake, all the way down to Dillingham, are seeing a fairly steady stream of these courteous visits from the British.
“They are really kind to us. They really listen to people,” elder Myrtle Anelon said. She spent the weekend cooking for the elder‘s conference. Other elders were treated to their first helicopter rides – and their first look at the Pebble site.
While Anglo was recently cleared of human rights abuse complaints by the South African Human Rights Organization, it has also earned some recognition. Anglo Coal was hailed by the Global Business Coalition for its “pioneering workplace programme focused on tackling HIV/Aids in South Africa.”
Another mentions Anglo “as one of the top three … European countries for corporate responsibility.”
This far away, it’s hard for Iliamna Lake residents to know whom to trust. At first, Reimers said she believed those ominous warnings of dangers to water and fish.
“We Native people learn by listening – not necessarily by reading,” Reimers said. “When someone comes to talk to us, we believe them. If we’re not clear, we ask questions.”
Last winter, Anglo took a group of Alaskans, including Reimers, on a tour of a copper mine in Los Bronces, Chile. When the group returned, they held off judgment, but mentioned good working conditions and economic opportunities for the locals.
“We went to see the mines, but our main goal was finding out how do the communities fit in with these mines,” Reimers explained. “What is Anglo doing for them? Before Anglo, the mining company that was working there didn’t seem to care about the people.”
IDC, under Reimers’ guidance, founded “Engaging Communities.” Described as a local initiative to encourage residents in “a proactive approach to learning about the issues and events affecting us all,” a documentary on the region’s economic issues included interviews with elders and people of all ages from dozens of villages in the Bristol Bay Region. Another recent documentary includes footage shot at Los Bronces. IDC uses the documentaries in presentations to places like the Bristol Bay area, the Homer City Council, Nanwalek and Anchorage.
IDC also has the contract to handle the Iliamna payroll for Pebble. For each of the past three years, the village development corporation has seen about 110 jobs filled by people from throughout the region, including Kokhanak, Nondalton, Pedro Bay, Levelock, Dillingham and New Stuyahok.
HOMER TRIBUNE/Naomi Klouda - Sue Anelon, president of Iliamna Natives Limited, speaks with Anglo’s Paul Henry.
“Before Pebble came along, we had no hope. We were trying a lot of economic ideas and nothing was working,” Reimers said. “Commercial fishing isn’t providing jobs any more, and even our subsistence hunting isn’t putting enough food on the tables. The biggest bull caribou and moose are getting killed off by big game hunters. But now that Pebble is here, at least we have hope for jobs.”
Approximately 50 part-time workers are employed at Pebble this summer. Nine are drillers’ helpers earning nearly $20 per hour, while several others form the “support industry” of running the kitchens, cleaning rooms and driving vans for a cadre of engineers, drillers and scientists. Last year, the Pebble Partnership employed 230 people at its peak of operation, said Pebble spokesman Heatwole.
Budgets tightened this year in the troubled worldwide economy, with spending at Pebble down to about $70 million after last year‘s $140 million investment, Shively said.
Arguments on the injunction brought by Nunamta are scheduled to be heard Sept. 9 in Alaska Superior Court. Neither the State, nor Nunamta could speak on the pending suit, but there is certainly more at stake than just shutting down Pebble. The suit questions the way the Department of Natural Resources conducts permitting, contending that their work doesn’t stand up to the constitutional guarantees of protecting the environment.
National interest in this war waged over Pebble gold and Bristol Bay fish continues to grow, as a PBS Frontline news crew recently interviewed Ed Folgers, the DNR official in charge of permitting Pebble.
Reimers, born in Iliamna just over 40 years ago, seems an unlikely person to be fighting the battle. She entered a world of dog team-travel and no running water, yet was educated first at a school in Boston, then the University of Fairbanks. At one talk this winter in Spokane, Washington, she was kept before a crowd of 500 people on a stage answering questions.
“Aren’t you afraid the Pebble Project will ruin waters and kill off the salmon?” she said she is frequently asked.
“I answer that there is no mine there yet. There is no proposal there yet. We are here learning and being part of the process so that we can know every step of the way what is planned,” Reimers said. “Of course we don’t want to see our water ruined or our fish die. But to say development can’t happen without ruining it all isn’t telling the whole truth.”