Caribou at the Pebble “Exploration” Site | photo of a photo by Ben Knight
Northern Dynasty has been kind to us, flying us from Anchorage to the “exploration site” in Iliamna, putting us up in a lake front condo, feeding us for the duration and taking us on a helicopter tour of the site in the pouring rain. They even allowed ben all the candy bars he could stomach – and that is saying a lot.
The deluge of rain didn’t make for the best shooting conditions while in the midst of our heli tour, but it was interesting plop down on the tundra and stand on top of what ndm’s geologists claim to be the largest porphyry gold/copper discovery ever in the history of digging up minerals from the subsurface of earth. They were a bit superstitious though and wouldn’t actually come out and say it was going to be the “biggest one,” but from the gleam in their eyes you knew it was getting pretty damn close.
We had always thought of the Pebble Mine as a gold mine, but it turns out it is now a copper mine that happens to also have billions of dollars in gold in it as a lucky byproduct. Pretty sweet huh? In our interviews with the NDM Public Relations folks and their site geologist manager the word gold was never once uttered. The focus was on the copper and the world’s insatiable hunger for it, oh and the national security benefit that a Canadian mining company could bring to the US once the mine goes through and billions of tons of copper, gold and molybdenum are extracted to sell in the global commodity markets. They did mention the fish though and promised the two could peacefully co-exist with “no-net loss,” which despite having this point clarified; is still a bit confusing to me.
We have had an extremely hard time tracking down folks who are avid supporters of the mine here in Iliamna, despite our greatest efforts and the town being “pro-mine.” It is not so much a town but a road with a few houses on it with an airport alive with the thunder of constant helicopter traffic over-head. Everything on the exploration site is delivered by helicopter; this means all 7 drill rigs (which penetrate down to 5000 feet), tons of environmental scientists doing private data collection studies, camp supplies, tents, trash, tundra pads (to put the drill rigs on), are flown in and out via helis. It is crazy, but the tundra is looked after and there are no roads on the site. It is all very orderly and well managed.
All the folks that we spoke with that are pro mine seem to have a far away look in their eyes or are talking about payday, whether it is their actual paycheck or the development of the mine site. They seem to lack the lust for life that other communities we have spent time in relish in. There seems to be a lack of soul, like they have sold out and can’t remember what it is like to be awed by their surroundings or nourished by their community. Some described it as only being about money and how can I get more than my neighbor.
The only passion we were able to evoke in our interviews was from the several geologists we spoke with who were blown away by the hugeness of the discovery and with their connection to what could be the biggest discovery of its kind – ever. All the geologists travel the international copper/gold mining circuit, helping mine the Tibetan Plateau, the highlands of Papua New Guinea, South Africa, and the Frasier River Valley of BC – you know all the shitty places out there with populations that lack political clout, I mean ahhh.
And now the headwaters of the Nushagak and Upper Talarik creek a mere 19 river miles from Alaska’s only great lake – Lake Iliamna. The geologists don’t seem to ponder the idea of the greater ecosystem or social impacts, only the grade of the ore and the economics necessary to make extraction a reality. It is all very theoretical to them or classified as not “their department.”
We were fortunate enough to find a local pilot to fly us around the site in his super cub – what an amazing experience. We followed Upper Talarik Creek to the mine site, did a bit more investigation of the drill rigs, and then descended down the South Fork of the Koktuli and in the process spotted a grizzly bear midstream and soon after a herd of over 600 caribou. The landscape is alive with life and with water. The hydrology is mind numbing. In every direction there are creeks, rivers, ponds and upwelling springs. The tundra is a like a giant sponge with an invisible lake below the surface. It will be challenging to contain tailings and not pollute the groundwater or surface water in perpetuity if a mine were to go through, but wait there will not be any “net loss” so I guess there is nothing to worry about. We can just wait and see.
Many of the locals in the area truly believe in the regulatory process and feel that there are just too many rivers and salmon for the mine to come in and fuck up. Again and again we hear from them that they need the jobs and they are thinking about it in terms of economic opportunity for their kids, right after they get done telling us the importance of salmon as the critical part of their cultural identity or complain about the cost of basketball sneakers in Anchorage. This will be a modern mine they say, just look at the Fraiser River in BC, 9 mines lining the river, clear cuts and a cement factory in town, but still the salmon come back…Wait and see they say. Wait and see. The regulatory process will work. We need the mine and we need the salmon. Wait and see…
Ben is left eye dominant just so you know | Photo by Travis Rummel