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ANCHORAGE, Alaska — Utah's biggest and best known mine has become a debating point in an environmental fight concerning a huge Alaska project known as the Pebble Mine.
Rio Tinto is a partner in the proposed mine that would be just as big as Kennecott's Bingham Canyon Mine and brings with it the promise of mining riches for the company and the Alaskan economy
"Oh, yeah, it's a world-class prospect," said John Shively, CEO of the Pebble Limited Partnership, which is battling to get the Pebble Mine approved in an area of Southwest Alaska known as Bristol Bay.
"It's one of the largest copper prospects in the world. It's one of the largest gold prospects. So it's large, there's no question about it."
But Native Alaskan Petla Noden of the Curyung Tribe said Kennecott's mine in Utah, with its history of groundwater contamination, is an example of what could happen in Alaska.
"I don't want that in Bristol Bay," Noden said. "I think people, when they think about Alaska, they want to come and they want to experience the pristine nature and the wildlife and not some big hole and toxic waste."
I think people, when they think about Alaska, they want to come and they want to experience the pristine nature and the wildlife and not some big hole and toxic waste.
Although Kennecott's activities in Utah led to widespread contamination decades ago, the company began addressing its environmental problems in Utah in the 1980's. Since then Kennecott has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on environmental cleanup and restoration.
Alaska's proposed Pebble Mine might ultimately be the biggest open-pit in the world. Rio Tinto would own about 20 percent of it.
A political firestorm has been raging for years, mainly because many Alaskan's consider its proposed location to be a threat to their most beloved fish resource.
Outsiders may not realize how important salmon are to the people of Alaska. Salmon's annual journey from the sea to the rivers and creeks of Alaska makes the fish central to the state's culture and economy.
"Yeah, Alaskans love salmon. It's one of those things that unites us," said Anders Gustafson of the Renewable Resources Coalition. But the very fact that his coalition was organized to fight the mine shows that the salmon resource also divides Alaskans as much as it unites them.
It's one of the largest copper prospects in the world. It's one of the largest gold prospects. So it's large, there's no question about it.
The high-stakes environmental battle was triggered by years of geologic exploration at the proposed mine site. Drilling has revealed an enormous deposit of copper and gold estimated to be worth as much as $500 billion.
The debate has been fierce and has stretched on for many years. The mine would be in the drainage where creeks and rivers flow into Bristol Bay, which many say is one of the world's last great salmon fisheries. Native Alaskans have been especially vocal, some likening the mine to the worst imaginable environmental atrocity.
It's like "dropping a nuclear bomb in Alaska," Noden said. "Basically, Pebble Mine would be the largest hole in North America."
"For us, the people of Bristol Bay, it is a scary thing," said Kimberly Williams, a Yup'ik Eskimo.
Shively believes such concerns are overblown. "I believe when we have our final plan out, people can see how we will protect the fish and how we will treat the water."
At a recent debate in Anchorage, critics squared off with supporters.
"Why do we mine?" asked Deantha Crockett, executive director of Alaska Miners Association, addressing a campus audience. "We all here have cellphones,"Crockett said. "We have computers. We have great uses for the minerals that are mined in the world. So it's unrealistic to expect that to stop any time soon."
Williams responded: "People like myself who put fish in my smokehouse every year, and my sons who commercial-fish with my dad, there is uncertainty because of (the Pebble Mine) for commercial fishermen, for subsistence fishermen."
For us, the people of Bristol Bay, it is a scary thing.
Although Rio Tinto owns about a fifth of the project, Shively said Kennecott's parent company has not played a major role so far. Rio Tinto officials said they actually favor an underground mine rather than an open-pit operation.
In a written statement from Rio Tinto's London office, the company told KSL, "We have always said we will only participate in Pebble if it can be constructed, operated and closed in a manner that preserves the water, salmon fisheries, wildlife and the environment."
"You can mitigate problems these days, if they occur," Shively said. "And we certainly expect them not to occur."
Critics, though, envision a nightmare scenario involving a mammoth tailings pond that would be built to contain the mine's toxic waste. The fear is that it might leak poisons into groundwater or that a sudden dam failure could spread toxic waste into the watershed.
"Anytime there's a catastrophe, which they can't guarantee there will never be," Gustafson said, "any of those pollutants or elements are going to flush down through that entire system."
The Pebble Mine project received a setback in September when the principal financing partner, the Anglo American mining company, pulled out of the deal after spending around $500 million. Some say that could be the death knell of the Pebble Mine.
This prospect will be developed someday. I mean, it may not be part of what I'm doing now. It may be later. It's a 300 to 500 billion dollar asset owned by the State of Alaska. I don't think it's going to sit in the ground forever.
Earlier this month, Alaska natives and environmentalists formed a new coalition to fight the mine. With such a long and raging controversy, it's not clear if any other big company will be willing to come in and provide the financing to keep Pebble Mine alive.
Anglo American's withdrawal forced Shively to lay off much of the project's workforce in recent weeks, but he believes it is still very much alive.
"This prospect will be developed someday," Shively said. "I mean, it may not be part of what I'm doing now. It may be later. It's a 300 to 500 billion dollar asset owned by the State of Alaska. I don't think it's going to sit in the ground forever."