By Jenny Neyman
Before deciding whether they would participate in a stakeholder dialogue process about Pebble Mine bankrolled by the proposed mine’s parent company, attendees of a meeting last week wanted to know if not building the mine was even an option.
Representatives from The Keystone Center, an independent mediation organization out of Denver, held a meeting at Kenai Peninsula College on Oct. 13 to explain how a Pebble Stakeholder Assessment and Dialogue Feasibility Study would be conducted, in the hope of garnering participation from peninsula residents in the dialogue meant to determine whether the mine should be built, and if so, how that will occur.
Pebble opponents in the audience were skeptical that “whether” was even an option in the process, since Northern Dynasty Minerals is footing the bill.
“There’s kind of an inherent problem because Pebble does have a predetermined outcome. For them, it’s not a whether. It’s a how for Pebble. So I just see an inherent problem, or the perception of one,” said Dave Atcheson, who is on the board of directors for the Renewable Resources Coalition, which opposes Pebble Mine. “And I read a lot about your group, and you’re a well-respected organization … but it’s a little different situation when you’re hired by the group that wants the how.”
Todd Bryan, Ph.D, a senior associate with Keystone, said Northern Dynasty hired the organization, but the group is independent and the mining company did not influence the process Keystone designed to gather stakeholder input, nor would it influence the outcome of the dialogue process.
“It’s not our goal to help Pebble get a mine,” Bryan said. “… When somebody pays us, they often have an outcome they would like to get. We make it very clear that it’s not our goal to get that outcome for them. In this case, we’re not trying to achieve their goal; we’re trying to help people out there make a decision about this very important project. We wouldn’t be in business for 36 years if we weren’t able to maintain that firewall between us and our work, and them and their work.”
Bryan said Keystone is typically brought in by government agencies to reach consensus between stakeholders, usually in land-use debates where public lands have multiple and conflicting mandates. Working for a for-profit business is rare.
“It’s seldom industry hires us because a lot of times the industry doesn’t see that there are multiple interests at stake and a need to try to balance them, but in this case, Pebble sees that,” Bryan said. “I think Pebble recognizes there’s an extremely valuable and sensitive salmon fishery that is particularly at risk and there are significant development needs that are trying to be met.”
Keystone began the process last spring with a stakeholder assessment that involved interviewing about 90 people on all sides of the issue. From that they categorized stakeholders in a continuum of being adamantly opposed to the mine and unwilling to participate in a dialogue process, to those who supported the mine and didn’t believe a dialogue process was necessary.
The dialogue process would be for people in between; those who are opposed to the mine but think it will be built and want input into how it will be built; those who don’t feel like they have enough information to decide whether they support the mine or not; and those who support the mine and think a dialogue process will improve the mine’s design.
From the interviews, Keystone compiled a list of environmental, economic and social issues and concerns the dialogue process would address, including damage that may be done to fishing and the Bristol Bay watershed, the lack of economic benefit the state would get from the mining operation, and the loss of subsistence opportunities and related cultural impacts on Natives in the area.
Bryan outlined the three stages of the dialogue process Keystone recommends. All stages involve opportunities for input, Bryan said.
“They can leave the talk at any time if they decided they’re totally opposed to the mine. Participating in the process does not inherently mean any support in any way, shape or form in the mine. We don’t want people to think by participating it’s some kind of tacit support of it, because it’s not,” he said.
In the first stage, independent science panels would be formed including independent, recognized, unbiased experts to review and assess the credibility of data that’s been gathered on Pebble in five topic areas — geology and hydrology; water quality; fish, wildlife and habitat; social and economic dynamics; and sustainable mining practices.
That last topic sparked some heartburn.
“Sustainable mining sounds kind of like an oxymoron to me,” said Jerry Brookman.
Bryan explained that it’s an industry term, referring to the sustainable economic development of a mine. But perhaps defining what that term means for stakeholders could be part of the dialogue process, he said.
“To me, sustainable is salmon coming back year after year after year, not taking a chunk of gold and making a ring out of it, that doesn’t seem sustainable to me. So I will definitely be interested in your definition for that,” said Krista Nyberg.
The second stage in the process involves joint fact-finding working groups, made up of scientists and stakeholders charged with gathering additional information to fill in any gaps or lingering questions that are identified in the independent science panels stage.
Stage three is the project planning collaborative, where a group of 20 to 30 stakeholders representative of those for, against and undecided about the mine, use existing information and additional information gathered to develop an “environmentally and socially preferred mining scenario or scenarios,” Bryan said.
Bryan said the plan is for the mine alternative designed by this group to go to Pebble to be submitted for the permitting process.
Brookman pointed out that Pebble is already working on a mine design, independent of the eventual results of the dialogue process. Bryan said the intent is to merge the two plans.
“At some point of the process we will merge the two things, the Project Planning Collaborative with what Pebble has already done,” he said. “The benefit of that is people will be able to react to what Pebble has come up with … the other side of that is that Pebble will have made some preliminary planning decisions independent of this collaborative planning process.”
Atcheson wanted to know if there was any guarantee Pebble would include the recommendations that come out of the dialogue process. There are none, Bryan said.
“We don’t know what Pebble may do. They may decide to go through the permitting process on their own, without any consensus from the groups,” Bryan said.
“I would feel a lot better if, as the process goes along, the public was allowed to have more information about what it is they’re proposing to do,” Brookman said. “Because once it gets to the public comment period, it’s already mostly set.”
Choosing to be involved in the process is a way to have a say in what happens with Pebble, Bryan said.
“There is a chance that it will get a permit, so it might be wise to participate in this process and to try to influence its design, if it’s going to go forward,” Bryan said.
Members of the audience said it seemed like the process is designed around the idea that the mine will happen, with each step progressing to the ultimate goal of producing a design that will be submitted for permitting.
“There’s a huge population that wants that land for hunting and fishing and keep it pristine, with no mine — none,” Nyberg said. “And I feel like they aren’t being represented in this. And if Keystone is supposed to be a nonbiased report, it’s already sounding like it’s not really quite there.”
Bryan said there is an option at each step of the process for stakeholders to decide that no mine is the best mine, and reach consensus on recommending Pebble not build anything. But that may not happen. Even if it does, a “no mine” consensus from the dialogue process doesn’t mean Pebble won’t be built anyway. If that’s the case, it’s better to have a voice in designing a mine alternative, he said.
“After getting information, if people decide to leave the process and go fight (the mine), we want to make sure people are free to do that, but that doesn’t mean Pebble won’t go ahead and seek a permit,” Bryan said. “Leaving the process doesn’t change what Pebble may do.”
Bryan said meetings of the independent science panels will be shared by video teleconferencing with communities around Southcentral, including the central peninsula, and will be held as early as December. If the process continues to the joint fact-finding stage, that likely will take place in December and January. Stage three, the project planning collaborative, is tentatively scheduled for early 2009.
Bryan said he thought the Soldotna meeting went well, and he appreciated the feedback.
“People were asking really good questions. It really showed that they thought about this a lot and it’s a really critical issue to them. We want to show them that the process has some merit and we’ll work on making it more relevant,” he said. “… I think that they have valid concerns about it and they are important. We understand their concerns and why they have them.”
Atcheson said he questions the process’ funding, and is interested to see if Keystone will address the concerns raised by the audience.
“It concerns me a little that they’re being paid by the Pebble Partnership. The Keystone group’s well-respected and everything, but it makes me a little leery of the process. And that’s a concern for a lot of people, I would think,” he said. “And I don’t like that there wasn’t a no mine option. I think they heard me and the other people that voiced the same concern.”