Commentary: Pebble’s empty promises

By Norm Van Vactor
For The Cordova Times

The Pebble Limited Partnership recently launched two new efforts to engineer support for its flailing Pebble mine project. The first is the so-called “Pebble Performance Dividend,” which promises to pay a dividend in the distant future to full-time residents of Bristol Bay. The second is a Memorandum of Understanding signed with a Bristol Bay village corporation, that would make that corporation responsible for logistics along the mine’s transportation corridor.

Alaskans should see these PLP commitments for what they are: more illusory promises from a company desperate for evidence of in-region support.

The most important aspect of both announcements is timing. Why is PLP touting a potential dividend program and making contracting commitments now when it has yet to receive any of the more than 60 necessary permits and, by its own calculations, is at least 4-5 years away (a likely overly optimistic timeline) from the start of construction? The answer is simple. PLP needs to show that its project has support in Bristol Bay because the likelihood of attracting a large mining company is slim to nonexistent without it. Indeed, multiple previous partners have abandoned Pebble due in part to the steadfast opposition in the region.

The proposed dividend payment is a charade. Alaskans should question why PLP is announcing a dividend program now and requiring Bristol Bay residents to sign up before August 31, 2020 – for a potential dividend that PLP will begin to pay no earlier than 2024, if ever. The obvious answer is PLP is hoping to use the program to suggest the project has growing support in Bristol Bay.

The same is true of the MOU PLP announced for the transportation corridor. Why make commitments about the operation of a transportation corridor before the project has a single permit? Before PLP has offered any evidence that a 20-year mine plan is economically feasible? Just weeks after the Corps of Engineers announced the new transportation corridor? Before PLP has a financial partner capable of advancing the project? Again, it needs to fabricate some vestiges of local support.

Alaskans should question these promises for another reason. Ron Thiessen, President and CEO for PLP parent company Northern Dynasty Minerals, is explicit about the likelihood that NDM would sell their rights to Pebble. For example, he told one stock pundit in 2017 that after permitting, “typically at that juncture a major mining company comes along and wants to buy that asset and the way they buy it typically is they buy the company. Northern Dynasty is no different.” No one should put much trust in the promises PLP makes now because there is a likelihood that NDM will not be around to honor them.

To date, PLP’s full-court public relations press has failed to convince significantly large numbers of people that building and operating this mine in Bristol Bay is not a threat to the region’s fisheries and way of life. Poll after poll show that Alaskans do not support this project. A survey released last week indicates that over 60 percent of Alaskans oppose Pebble, with nearly as many supporting Environmental Protection Agency action to stop it.

PLP needs to boost momentum for the project because it knows the upcoming Environmental Impact Statement for Pebble will likely be insufficient to justify a Clean Water Act permit for the project. The Preliminary Final EIS gave Alaskans little reason to believe that the Final EIS will adequately address the fundamental flaws in PLP’s proposal. From the decimation of salmon habitat, to an unprecedented tailings dam design, a questionable approach to water treatment, and myriad other documented instances of insufficient plan designs, there is no reliable scientific evidence that Pebble can be safely constructed and operated in a manner that would not risk Bristol Bay’s fishery.

As summer turns to fall and the scheduled federal Clean Water Act permitting process for Pebble ends, Alaskans can expect more of the same from PLP. The dividend program and a village corporation agreement are just the opening acts of this latest performance. Alaskans should know what these announcements represent: enticements built on false promises – commitments that PLP and NDM likely cannot keep.

The fundamental flaw of Pebble is that PLP cannot guaranty the future of our salmon fishery, the purity of Bristol Bay’s water, the preservation of our subsistence way of life. Without those guarantees, all other promises — monetary or otherwise — remain worthless.

Norm Van Vactor, a veteran of Alaska’s commercial fisheries industry, is the chief executive officer of the Bristol Bay Economic Development Corp. in Dillingham.