Avatar on the home planet

By Phil Lansing, IRU member

The innocuous sounding Pebble Partnership is a mining operation getting its knickers in a twist over the motion picture Avatar. One can easily see why. Pebble seeks to dig a vast mine complex in the best part of wild Alaska. Avatar is a make-believe story about the depredations of a soulless mining company on a really nifty far away planet. Pebble’s problem is that if you substitute normal Alaskan Aleut and Yup’ik people for Avatar’s 10-foot blue aliens, the movie pretty much tells the Pebble Mine story. Take out the love interest and gun violence, and you practically have a documentary.

The place Pebble plans to stomp is Alaska’s Bristol Bay region, at the base of the Alaska Peninsula. You’ve heard of the area: Katmai National Park, Brooks Camp (source of photos of bears fishing in a waterfall) Lake Iliamna (Alaska’s biggest – complete with freshwater seals) and Bristol Bay itself. The area’s sockeye salmon run is the world’s largest and best managed: 40 million fish in 2009, 50 million expected in 2010. The sport fishing is world-class. The region lacks spiritually cool blue aliens but really does include good-natured Yup’ik and Aleut communities, still living subsistence-based lives by choice. It also supports a $320 million per year commercial salmon industry that is a world model for sustainability. Alaska natives own a fair chunk of that industry, making subsistence a little more comfortable.

Enter the Pebble Partnership, with controlling interest split between a Canadian outfit and Anglo American of Great Britain. Anglo’s Chairman is Sir John Parker, a Cecil Rhodes wannabe who appears typecast for the villain role. Pebble seeks to mine an estimated $350 billion — not a typo, billion — in gold, copper and other minerals right smack on top of Bristol Bay’s Iliamna and Nushagak watersheds, the most important for salmon, bears, people, caribou and other users. It’s not Avatar’s Sacred Tree House, but it’s close enough. The proposed complex may include North America’s largest open pit and largest tailings lakes, with earthen dams totaling more than 9 miles in length. And all of this is in the earthquake prone Pacific Ring of Fire. The region’s soils carry a high natural content of mercury, arsenic and other nasties. When the soils are undisturbed all is well. When the soils are disturbed (by giant Star Wars-ish mining machines, for example) wind and waterborne grit can contaminate the water and whack the salmon. Salmon sustain the region and are sacred to most area inhabitants.

With such a huge project and a $1.5 billion investment, Pebble is soulless but canny. At the outset it hired most of the expert environmental consultants in Alaska to gather and sort data. As Pebble owns the data it can junk what it dislikes. Now scientific criticism can only come from outside companies that don’t know the territory. In other words, Pebble bought “good science.” Next, the company poured money into the area, hiring community leaders as consultants for obscene fees and renting housing at exorbitant rates, anything to buy support and divide opinion. It even set up a foundation to buy thoughtful gifts for villages: ambulances and soccer uniforms are two examples. Fortunately, Bristol Bay natives have known about white guys with gifts for generations. The City Council of Dillingham, Bristol Bay’s largest community, recently voted to reject all gifts from Pebble. Debate centered not on whether they might want the mine — all were opposed — but on whether they should still take the bribes.

Sounds more and more like the movie, doesn’t it? It’s the part where the annoyed aliens reject the mine company gifts.

Pebble has been busy with this project for 10 years, drilling holes and massaging data. The company did a dance with its seismic scoping to show that an area with earthquakes doesn’t really have earthquakes. Miles of earth dams will contain toxic tailings in perpetuity, thank you, and the prophets of Salmon Armageddon are denounced as luddites. The company’s cleverest move, however, is how it copes with criticism. Pebble is shocked, shocked that anyone might criticize it without reviewing its permit application. Since the actual application is years down the road, the company is asserting it should not be criticized for years. This is ludicrous. Avatar meets Catch 22.

Meanwhile, repeating the mantra that it’s too early to critique Pebble is a great diversion from the reality of the company’s proposal. It gets people off substance and on to process. From there it’s a short step to criticizing the critics, a topic even more diversionary and one where Pebble’s public relations spinners are most comfortable. In the movie version, the company muzzles exo-biologist Sigourney Weaver by locking her up.

Pebble is happy, however, to tell a made up story about the jobs and benefits the mine will bring. It seems Sir John is just aching to help those poor Alaska natives. No need to wait on permits to tell that fairy tale.

Thus there’s a certain irony in Pebble’s upset with Avatar. Their two key constructs: diversionary criticism of their critics and a fictive narrative about area economic benefits, just can’t compete with the far more imaginative and entertaining Hollywood version. Pebble’s own failure to participate in responsible dialogue on how it actually plans to mine has left it vulnerable to a fiction-based assault. The company is getting negative publicity, and executives don’t have a response. What can they say, that the stories aren’t analogous? They are.

Pebble won’t be defeated Hollywood style, with a big shoot ’em up launched from the backs of simpatico flying reptiles. But the movie version might set in motion national scrutiny of the real Pebble Mine. If that happens the peaceful villagers may yet triumph over the soulless corporation – just like the movie.

Phil Lansing lives in Boise. He and his family run a seasonal commercial fishing boat on Bristol Bay. Lansing is a member of Idaho Rivers United, where we are continuing to scrutinize mining proposals in the headwaters of the Boise River. Mosquito Consolidated Gold is proposing a massive open-pit molybdenum mine at the headwaters of Grimes Creek, and Atlanta Gold is proposing a large gold mine on the Middle Fork Boise River, near Atlanta.