The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is holding a series of public hearings on the proposed Pebble Mine’s draft environmental review. Three were held in communities on Iliamna Lake. That region – and the people who live there – would be among the most immediately impacted by the project.
Situated in southwest Alaska, Lake Iliamna is renowned for its pure water, freshwater seals and fish. Now, it is the center of one of the most contentious debates in the state.
The proposed Pebble Mine would sit 17 miles north of the lake. It would tap into large deposits of copper, gold and molybdenum. And it would operate at the headwaters of the largest sockeye salmon run in the world. For some, this spells disaster for that habitat and residents’ traditional way of life. But others say it is a chance at renewed economic vitality.
In Kokhanok, around fifty people attended the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' public hearing on the mine, though far fewer testified. Marlene Nielsen was one of those who spoke in support of the proposal.
“What do we have here?” she asked. “The village council that only has five, six jobs. The school that only has maybe two or three aides. And the store, maybe two. That’s not very much economy here. We need something going here for our kids. But we also need to make sure it’s safe.”
Across the lake in Iliamna, Chasity Anelon shares those concerns. She has worked as an operations coordinator for the Pebble Project for the past 10 years.
“So I’ve lived in Iliamna all my life. I have a daughter and, you know, I choose to live here. This is my home, this is where I want to be. And I am able to live here because I have a job,” she said.
Anelon said that job allowed her to build a house and take care of her family. But she acknowledged that the issue is complicated.
“I’m just as afraid as everybody else," she said. "But I’m also willing to see the process work, and if they can prove that it can be done safe, I feel like it’s important for people in our lake area to have jobs. There’s been so many people that have left our communities because there’s no opportunities here. And when somebody has a job and they’re able to come to work and they have pride, it shows. You can tell.”
Those sentiments were echoed at the meeting that evening in Newhalen, where the overwhelming message was that community members were struggling to find jobs. People there largely supported the mine, citing the potential for more employment.
A major argument against the development is its threat to Bristol Bay’s commercial fishing industry. But around the lake, a high unemployment rate and a low number of locally-owned fishing permits means the financial incentive of the mine often outweighs ecological risks to the fishery.
Newhalen Tribal President Henry Olympic is a commercial fisherman. During his testimony, he remained neutral on the project. But he said that in addition to fishing, he needed to work full-time.
“Me being a fisherman from Newhalen, we don’t get that luxury of getting that help from BBEDC or being in the CDQ,” he explained.
For some, Pebble provides an answer to economic stalemate. But for others, the potential for damage is unacceptable. The hearing in Igiugig featured mainly anti-Pebble testimony. Those opposed to the mine cited threats to subsistence activities and their way of life. That included Sheryl Wassillie, who stressed the need to prioritize traditional values. In recent years, Igiugig has taken part in revitalization efforts for Yup’ik language and dance, and Wassillie worried that those efforts would be cut short.
“It’s not just about salmon or the abundance of wild animals, but us as people," she said. "We are a resource. We belong here and we matter. I want our culture and traditions to be passed down to future generations. If Pebble goes through it would further push our traditions and culture aside during a time when we are trying to revitalize what was taken from us before.”
Alicia Zackar is a social services worker in Igiugig. She has lived in the area her whole life. The day after the hearing, she drove around town, with one of the kids she babysits in tow.
“I think I first heard about Pebble when I was 16. I’m 26 now, so like 10 years ago,” she said.
Zackar is against the mine. She said that even if it provides jobs in the short-term, when the mine closes those jobs will disappear. Still, she can understand why some people support it.
“So my dad is on the fence about it. Like, he likes the idea of getting money and getting jobs. But he also is a hunter and a fisher,” she said. “But we’ve gotten really loud just talking about it. It’s like, ‘Dad, these jobs are going to be gone in like 30 years. Yeah, it’s going to be good for a bit, but then they’re going to leave it like a ghost town.”
Zackar’s family lives directly by the mouth of the Kvichak River, which feeds into the lake. Walking down to the beach, she points to her family’s subsistence site, directly in front of the house where she grew up.
“My parents’ subsistence net goes – see that red blodge over there? It goes a little bit further than that," she said. "And then we cut fish, right below my parents’ house there.”
Zackar wants to raise a family in Igiugig. She said the economic gains from the mine wouldn’t be worth endangering their way of life.
“People that haven’t been here are probably going to pick pro-Pebble, because they haven't seen how beautiful it is and what’s at risk,” she said.
Throughout the hearings, people across the spectrum expressed the desire to create and maintain communities for their families to live and work. The role Pebble will play is yet to be determined.
The public comment period ends on May 30. There are four hearings left; the next is scheduled for April 8 in Nondalton.