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House Resouces hears from United Tribes of Bristol Bay about Pebble

Gavel to Gavel / 360 North

Rep. Andy Josephson (D-Anchorage) extended the invite to hear about UTBB's allegations that Pebble has left a mess behind during exploration work.

The United Tribes of Bristol Bay was invited to testify before the Alaska House Resources Committee in Juneau Monday. At issue was UTBB’s allegation that Pebble has left a mess from exploration work at their mining claims northwest of Iliamna. 

Audio Transcript: Anchorage Democrat Andy Josephson invited UTBB to share findings of their 2016 report to the committee members. Josephson has been leading the charge against Pebble in the state Legislature, and now has a bigger voice as co-chair of House Resources.

“This is one of the most significant environmental issues of my lifetime, fifty-two year resident of the state of Alaska. Critically important to the state, very divisive issue, strikes me as mandatory that we would have a hearing like this," he explained.

Last summer geophysicist Dr. David Chambers was contracted by UTBB to conduct on the ground surveys of 107 of more than 1300 test holes dug on the Pebble claims. Chambers summed up the problems he identified into four general groups.

"First of all, we found that 17 sites that we looked at had acidic soils, that’s the sort of orange colored soil.  … We also found artesian drill holes … and at those holes we found that there were elevated levels of sulfate, copper, and other heavy metals in the water. … We also found a few locations with petroleum contamination which we documented in the laboratory," Chambers said, using a slideshow presentation to highlight the visuals from the fieldwork. The last problem he documented was that some metal well casings still stand above the surface, posing a potential hazard to winter travelers. The sites were not randomly chosen, said Chambers, but were picked based on issues documented during prior inspections.

Alannah Hurley is the executive director of United Tribes of Bristol Bay. She told the House Resources Committee that Pebble’s exploration activities have already impacted the ecosystem.

"This report has verified the concerns of our people that they have held for the last decade. Our elders have noticed less fish in the upper river systems of the Nushagak and Kvichak Rivers. Our local hunters have seen our game pushed further and further away from their communities and normal patterns, due to exploration activities. These concerns come from our people and our communities, who are seeing real impacts to our way of life," said Hurley.

The UTBB report was filed as a public comment to the state’s Department of Natural Resources, which is reviewing a land use permit renewal request from Pebble. UTBB asked that if DNR does renew the permit, it limit it to just one year, and require Pebble to provide a reclamation bond to cover clean-up costs in the event the company folds.

The assertions against DNR’s oversight and Pebble’s stewardship were strong enough that several committee members asked why neither had been invited to testify themselves.

It was "unfortunate" they didn't get the chance, said Pebble spokesman Mike Heatwole.

"We’ve said regarding the UTBB report that the allegations are demonstrably false … there’s a lot of problems with the report," he said after the hearing. "We run a very compliant program that’s been subject to 55 separate state inspections over the course of our time out there, and we’ve repeatedly been found in compliance with the requirements for an exploration project such as ours.”

DNR did delay renewing Pebble’s land use permit while it reviews the large number of public comments received. Pebble was granted a temporary extension through the end of March. The Pebble claims are being operated under “care and maintenance” status, but Pebble has raised some $37 million to continue exploration work, which could get back underway this summer after a three year hiatus.

Rep. Josephson said House Resources may consider supporting UTBB’s requests that DNR add more stringent oversight of Pebble’s exploration and site reclamation. He said Monday’s hearing was mostly for informational purposes.

United Tribes of Bristol Bay is a political advocacy group representing 14 area tribal councils. A contingent of its staff and board traveled to Juneau for the thirty minute presentation.

Reach the author at dave@kdlg.org or 907.842.5281.