Some Bristol Bay residents divided on Pebble Mine after final public hearing on Draft Environmental Impact Statement

ANCHORAGE (KTUU) — The Army Corps of Engineers heard eight hours of public testimony in Anchorage on Tuesday during the final public hearing on its Draft Environmental Impact Statement for the proposed Pebble Mine Project.

Inside the Dena'ina Center, procedure and decorum were carefully observed. Outside, hundreds gathered in a cordoned-off area in opposition to the Draft EIS and the proposed Pebble project.

Those hundreds of voices collectively chimed in on familiar hymns infused with lyrical twists relevant to the protest, singing "Bring back, oh bring back my sockeye to me!"

Gayla Hoseth, second chief for Curyung Tribal Council and director of natural resources for Bristol Bay Native Association, was a key speaker for the opposition.

"We are being ignored. We need to not be ignored. We are the people of the land,” Hoseth said to a cheering crowd of protesters. “This land was gifted to us by our ancestors, and we need to make sure that we protect it for the future generations."

Hoseth testified in front of the USACE before the rally began, telling the federal agency it had not done enough to make the Draft EIS available to residents in remote areas of Bristol Bay.

"For you to not hear the voices of our people, and see the faces in Dillingham, is another slap in the face by the US Army Corps of Engineers by this process that we are currently in," she said.

Pebble Partnership spokesman Mike Heatwole said while many Bristol Bay residents are opposed to the mine, some traveled to Tuesday’s hearing in order to learn more about potential jobs.

"Which is largely about wanting to see the full process work,” Heatwole said, “and see about what this could mean as an opportunity in terms of jobs in an area where there really isn't a lot of economic activity."

Clyde Trefon is one of those people — a lifetime resident of Nondalton who is concerned about what he considers to be a chronic lack of jobs in the Bristol Bay area.

"Back home, there's only a few jobs at the school, city and the tribe,” Trefon said. “So it's more like a lottery if you're trying to get a job."

Trefon said both of his sons left home to find work in Virginia, but his community is divided on whether the need for jobs outweighs the potential environmental concerns. So divided, in fact, he mentioned potentially being shunned for showing a hint of support for the proposed Pebble Mine.

“It’s not the best thing for us, but it’s the only thing that has jobs for us right now,” Trefon said. "It's going to happen whether we like it or not. So, what we need to do is start getting at the table, start learning about it, and start putting our people at the table to help make these big important decisions.”

Gayla Hoseth said she remains unconvinced that the people of Bristol Bay will receive the higher paying jobs that could come along with the Pebble Mine.

“The jobs aren’t going to be for the people of Bristol Bay,” she said. “These jobs are going to be for people outside of the region, outside of Alaska, outside of the United States.”

Heatwole responded to Hoseth’s skepticism, saying Pebble Limited Partnership has a workforce development plan to ensure people who want jobs can get them.

“Some of the more technical jobs obviously need more training,” Heatwole said. “If there are residents who want to work, we will find a way to employ them.”

According to Heatwole, PLP will soon be gearing up for limited drilling and additional environmental studies at the mine site ahead of the summer season.

The public comment period on the Draft EIS will remain open through May 30. Comments can be submitted online here, or mailed to the USACE, Alaska District at 645 G Street Suite 100-921, Anchorage, Alaska 99501.