Pebble debate breaks out between BBNC shareholders
JUNEAU — Sharp opinion differences over the proposed Pebble mine within the Bristol Bay community spilled out in Juneau March 19.
The occasion was an informal “lunch and learn” noon session for legislators and staff in the state capitol where Bristol Bay Native Corp., the regional Alaska Native corporation for the area, gave a presentation on its activities, finances and dividends paid to shareholders.
Jason Metrokin, BBNC’s president and CEO, used the occasion to announce that revenues will cross the $2 billion threshold for its fiscal year ending March 31. That’s up from $1.7 billion last year.
Another 2011 milestone is that the corporation will have paid out $100 million in dividends to its shareholders since BBNC was formed in 1972 along with other Alaska Native corporations. The corporations’ share of the original $962 million cash settlement paid by the government was $30 million.
Metrokin also wanted to explain BBNC’s reasons for opposing the big Pebble mine project, and that didn’t sit well with a handful of the corporation’s shareholders who were in the audience along with legislators.
Metrokin said it is the sheer scale of the Pebble project and a distrust of the state’s permitting process that led BBNC’s board to twice pass resolutions opposing the mine, once in 2009 and again in 2011.
However, Lisa Reimers, of Iliamna, a village close to the Pebble prospect, said communities in her part of the Bristol Bay region who stand to benefit from the mine, have no representation on BBNC board and were not a part of that decision.
“We have no voice,” she said.
Another dissenting voice was Abe Williams, another BBNC shareholder, who said communities in the eastern part of the region support the project being allowed to proceed to the permitting process. He objected to actions that would “short-circuit” the process by preventing the mining companies working on Pebble from filing permits.
Williams said it is when the permits are filed that local people will be able to understand how the companies plan to develop the mine, safeguard put in place, and the overall risks and benefits.
Metrokin said the corporation understands some shareholders’ opposition to the position taken by the board, but that a survey of shareholders in 2011 showed 81 percent opposed to the mine, an increase compared to 69 percent opposed when a similar survey was taken in 2007.
“We have not yet seen the project plan but have seen enough elements of the project that we know there will be risks,” he said. If the project does proceed to permitting, “we’ll be there at every step of the way, to protect the fish.”
Of 31 villages within BBNC’s regional boundaries, 26 have expressed opposition to Pebble, Metrokin said.
Reimers and Williams said that communities more open to the project are those nearest it and where economic conditions are bad, population is being lost and schools are closing because of the lack of students.
Metrokin replied that BBNC supports resource development that is responsible, but Reimers shot back: “You support development as long as it’s not in your back yard?”
Not so, Metrokin said.
BBNC is working with mining companies on evaluation of prospects on lands in the region owned by the corporation, and the it even owns a small piece of the Greens Creek Mine in Southeast Alaska, a legacy of its prior ownership of Peter Pan Seafoods, which had owned the Greens Creek share.
Greens Creek, an underground mine that operates within a protected area on Admiralty Island west of Juneau, is an example of responsible development, Metrokin said.
Reimers said this was still a contradiction – supporting some mines but not wanting one particular project to proceed to permitting.
Teal Smith, the corporation’s vice president for lands who was with Metrokin, said there is a significant difference between “working with a company to assess what could be possible and what the corporation might support,” or not support.
Metrokin said there is a lot of mineral potential in the Bristol Bay region but also a lot of fish, which the corporation wants to protect.
“We’ve got to find a balance,” he said.
The salmon fishery contributes $500 million a year and 3,500 jobs to the Bristol Bay regional economy and supports regional subsistence, which is valued at an additional $180 million.
“We don’t own this resource, but it benefits our region,” he said.
Williams agreed that fisheries need protection – he’s a fishermen himself – but pointed out that only 15 percent of the salmon fishing permits in the Bristol Bay fishery are owned by Alaska residents.
“We don’t really have much of a voice in this fishery,” he said.
Metrokin agreed this is a problem and that ways have to be found to help local people buy back salmon fishing permits held by nonresidents.
Williams went on: “I’ve fished for 26 years and I value that resource, but I also believe (over dependence on) fisheries can be our demise,” Williams said. Other options for sustaining the economy should not be blocked by a “pre-emptive” strike to prevent Pebble from applying for permits, he said.
Metrokin said BBNC is working to strengthen its regional economy through a board policy to invest 10 percent of its corporate assets within the region and 20 percent of its assets in other parts of Alaska in ventures that support its activities.
On Pebble, Metrokin said there is fundamentally a distrust of the state’s permitting process and whether it would really be rigorous.
“We worry about this when we hear the governor talking about ‘streamlining’ the permitting process for resources projects,” he said. “Streamlining may not be in the best interest of local people. We want the process to be robust. Our concern is that rural people will not have much of a voice at the table.”
Actions by the state administration and the Legislature last year to allow the state coastal zone program to die has added to concerns felt by people in the region, Metrokin said. Coastal management was a way people in many coastal communities felt they had a role in decisions on permits and other actions on major resource projects that affect coastal areas.
A proposition reinstating the coastal management program, brought by citizen initiative will appear on the November election ballot unless the Legislature passes a similar law by its April 15 adjournment, which is unlikely.
If Pebble is developed it would almost certainly be an underground mine with possibly an adjacent surface mine. The concern people have in the Bristol Bay region is that any pollution from the mine, such as from tailings stored above ground, could affect surface waters that drain into salmon-bearing streams.