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Meghan Sullivan
Indian Country Today

A proposed copper-gold-and-molybdenum mine in western Alaska is at the center of a decades-long, heated debate. Central to the controversy is the clash between the mining and fishing industries. If developed, Pebble Mine would be a mile wide and around 1,950 feet deep, making it the largest mine of its type in North America and one of the largest in the world.

A few miles away from the proposed mining area lies a watershed that feeds into another area abundant with a rare resource: the Bristol Bay salmon fishery. It produces some 50 million fish annually, about half the world's sockeye salmon, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Many fishers, locals, and environmental enthusiasts fear that the mine could damage Bristol Bay’s ecosystem and fisheries.

But while people often focus on the potential impact to the commercial fishing industry, the mine could also affect subsistence fishing and hunting in the area.

Alaska Native people in the region, including Central Yup’ik, Dena’ina Athabascan, and Alutiiq, have relied upon the abundant salmon for thousands of years. They fish and preserve the harvest during the summer season as part of a tradition that’s both a staple of the local economy and a critical part of their culture. In addition to fishing for salmon, local Alaska Natives also hunt for caribou and moose, and pick greens and berries as part of a subsistence diet.

“Subsistence is a way of life that was passed on from my Yup’ik ancestors that lived here for thousands of years. I learned subsistence from my grandparents, my mom. Now I'm a grandmother, and I'm passing it on to my sons and daughters and they're going to pass it to their children. It’s our identity,” said Margie Hastings, Y’upik, from New Stuyahok, a village in the Bristol Bay area. “It brings people together, it gives us a sense of purpose, and gives us a reason to be thankful for the bountiful Bristol Bay.”

“[Subsistence] is our culture. It’s our way of life. We come together and share everything. Not just the salmon but everything -- the moose and berries too,” said Sally Gumlickpuk, Yup’ik, who lives in Dillingham, another village in the Bristol Bay region.

A 2015 study by the state of Alaska found that the region's subsistence harvests "are among the largest in the state.” It also highlighted the negative economic outcome that could happen for individual households if subsistence fishing was no longer an option.

Without the continuation of subsistence fisheries, each household would most likely have to pay an additional $5,000 to $15,000 on store-bought foods. “In addition to their nutritional and economic value, the subsistence fisheries of the region support cultural and social values that are a foundation of life for Bristol Bay residents,” the report concluded.

Last week, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers released its final environmental impact statement on Pebble Mine’s development. The statement acknowledged the importance of subsistence, explaining that, “for Indigenous people, subsistence activities are rooted in traditional cultural values, spirituality, and a sense of community. In addition to its inextricable roots in traditional Alaska Native culture, subsistence is integral to the contemporary mixed economic system in rural Alaska.”

Pictured: The Bristol Bay watershed in Alaska nourishes thriving salmon runs.

Two chapters of the environmental impact document analyze the influence of the proposed mine site, port, transportation corridor, and natural gas pipeline corridor on the region’s subsistence economy, including in the Kokhanok, Igiugig, Nondalton, Pedro Bay, Newhalen, and Iliamna communities.

“The thing that they neglect to do is come face to face with us. Come live in the communities and see the lifestyle we live, and see if they could survive like we do,” said Hastings, commenting on the communication between developers and the surrounding villages.

Many Alaska Native communities in the region believe the project’s risks to subsistence are too high, with some communities having already seen negative impacts.

“I know that Pebble Mine will impact subsistence,” said Hastings, recalling the changes she saw when Pebble Mine conducted it’s initial explorations. “We had a gathering one time and there was a question about caribou that were missing from this area. And one of the elders mentioned that it was the exploration -- the animals could sense it. Even if it was only an exploration, nothing serious, it did have an impact on the caribou.”

A main argument in the Pebble Mine debate focuses on whether or not the mine will be able to avoid an accident that could spill toxins into the water. But some local communities worry that even in the best case, planned side effects from the mine, such as increased transportation, will have negative results on subsistence patterns.

“I know that they say the fish will continue on, but those people don't realize that the location of the Pebble Mine is the location where a lot of our salmon go spawn. So yes, it will have a large impact,” explained Gumlickpuk.

“The animals flee away from what they perceive as danger,” said Hastings.

Bristol Bay Native Corporation’s Chairman Joe Chythlook said the corporation also opposes the Pebble Mine. “BBNC’s firm opposition to Pebble is consistent with the values of cultural and economic sustainability to which we hold ourselves.”

Furthermore, some argue that the risks outlined in the final environmental impact statement significantly downplay the total scope of the project, seeing as it measures the impact of mining just 13 percent of the ore deposit. Pebble Partnership has acknowledged they will most likely expand operations past that percentage, says Bristol Bay Native Corporation.

“We show pictures of how big the mine can become, but to me, the people need to actually see it to really believe it. Every mining area is different, but where Pebble Mine is going to be there are lots of streams where the fish spawn. It's difficult to actually visualize how much area of our land is going to be used up,” said Gumlickpuk.

A broad coalition of Native and non-Native organizations oppose the Pebble Project. Shown here from left, Bristol Bay Reserve Association Board member Mike LaRussa, Bristol Bay Native Association President/CEO Ralph Andersen, Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association Executive Director Andy Wink, United Tribes of Bristol Bay Deputy Director Lindsay Layland, Bristol Bay Economic Development Corporation President and CEO Norm Van Vactor, and Robin Samuelson of Bristol Bay Native Corporation, make statements at the Federal Courthouse in Anchorage, Alaska Tuesday Oct. 8, 2019. Critics of the Pebble Mine planned near headwaters of a major Alaska salmon fishery are suing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, saying EPA improperly withdrew proposed restrictions on development in that region. (Marc Lester/Anchorage Daily News via AP)

United Tribes of Bristol Bay, which represents 15 tribal governments and 80 percent of the population in the region, released a statement on Monday that reiterates their opposition to the project. “Scientific experts exposed the significant inadequacies of Pebble’s environmental review and reiterate that Pebble’s plan would destroy the pristine waters of Bristol Bay that support critical salmon habitat that provides for the region’s indigenous people and half the world’s supply of wild sockeye salmon,” it said. “This comes as no surprise to the people of Bristol Bay who have been silenced and steam-rolled throughout the two-and-a-half-year [permitting] process that advanced at unprecedented speeds.”

“This is not only being scrutinized by the scientific community, but it also is unbelievably an affront to Native people, because the Corp has decided that they are going to permit this project using Native land that the owners have not given people permission to access,” said Alannah Hurley, Yup’ik, the Executive Director of the United Tribes of Bristol Bay. “Not only are they ignoring state and federal scientific agencies, but now they're literally, from a Native perspective, pursuing a project using land that Native people have said are off limits.”

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Hastings also worried about Pebble’s development of Native land. She explained how ancient burial sites might be within the development zone, and that community elders and the developers should collaborate in order to identify these places.

Likewise, the Igiugig Village Council said that it’s Diamond Point lands were unavailable for use in developing the northern route for the Pebble Project. “The Igiugig Village Council is committed to the sustainability and health of future generations and Pebble does not fit into our vision for a thriving future,” read the statement.

What’s in the environmental impact statement?

The final environmental impact statement divided the analysis of Pebble Mine’s influence on subsistence into four categories: resource availability, access to resources, competition for resources, and sociocultural conditions.

All four categories would likely see changes at some point during the mine’s construction and production phases, the report says.

“Construction and operation of project facilities may impact fish and wildlife habitat, and decrease or displace fish, wildlife, and vegetative resources used for subsistence,” it states, referencing the project’s impact on resource availability. These negative results would most likely stem from the construction phase and increased human and vehicle traffic.

For access to resources, “project facilities and transportation corridors may open or remove areas from subsistence activities, or facilitate or restrict access to subsistence resources. In addition to physical access, project activity may change the character of the subsistence activities.”

For example, road and pipeline construction might interfere with the subsistence users’ travel. Additionally, snow machine access may be hindered by the addition of an ice-breaking ferry, which could also lead to a safety hazard for winter travellers. Pebble Partnership has stated they would install trail markings and crossings to minimize this danger.

There could be adverse effects for resource competition as well. “Changes to local population from direct and indirect employment and construction of project transportation access corridors may result in increased competition for subsistence resources,” the report describes. Although, it adds, new project employees wouldn’t be allowed to hunt, fish, and gather while on site during their two-week shift, in order to minimize competition for local subsistence resources.

As for sociocultural differences, the report says that “direct/indirect employment opportunities for local residents and the presence of new large-scale industrial facilities may have adverse and beneficial sociocultural effects and may have an adverse impact on subsistence users’ experience.”

(Related: Pebble Mine in Alaska: Timeline of events)

This category’s outcome is perhaps the hardest to predict. Certain Alaska Native people, primarily the Iliamna Native corporation, favor the mine’s development as they believe it will bring better economic opportunities to the region.

The report states that, “project activities would increase employment opportunities for residents of the analysis area, particularly for those living in communities surrounding Iliamna Lake. The number of local people who would be hired during the construction phase is not known, but PLP intends to prioritize opportunities for area residents or those with close ties to the area.”

In past cases, large economic projects in rural Alaska have both prevented out-migration from villages and increased out-migration, says the report.

It also said that long-term harm to traditional subsistence practices in the area could occur if the mine contaminates food sources, or people come to believe there’s been contamination.

“The culture and practice of subsistence is learned by living it. Interruptions and discontinuities that affect implementation and transmission of knowledge may also affect subsistence lifeways in the area. There is no substitute or replacement for this traditional knowledge and how it is passed from generation to generation,” it acknowledges.

Despite these potential risks, Pebble Limited Partnership has continually stated that the project can be completed without creating harm to the region. In a recent statement, Pebble Partnership’s CEO Tom Collier stated that the final environmental impact statement shows that Pebble Mine “could be done responsibly, be done without harm to the Bristol Bay fishery, and provide meaningful contributions to the communities closest to the project.”

The final environmental impact statement, which was released July 24, will be used to decide if two necessary permits can be issued: Section 404 of the Clean Water Act, and Section 10 of the Rivers and Harbors Act. The decision is expected to be announced after 30 days from the environmental impact statement’s release.

From there, the state of Alaska will begin the process of reviewing various state permits and regulations needed to complete the mine project.

“I know that we are a minority, but in our land here, we are the scientists,” said Hastings. “We are the people that know everything there is to know about where we live. We know the plants that give us medicine, we just know everything because we need all of it to survive.”

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Updated to replace a commercial fishing photo and update captions.

Meghan Fate Sullivan, Koyukon Athabascan, is a Stanford Rebele Fellow for Indian Country Today. She grew up in Alaska, and is currently reporting on her home state from our Anchorage Bureau. Follow her on Twitter: @mfatesully

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