Economics of Pebble Mine could aid U.S., Whatcom economies

COURTESY TO THE BELLINGHAM HERALDJune 26, 2013 

Mining Bristol Bay

This 2003 photo provided by the Bureau of Land Management shows a stream flowing through the Bristol Bay, Alaska watershed.

ASSOCIATED PRESS

In considering Alaska's proposed Pebble Mine - the people of Whatcom County should consider the following:

Pebble is one of the largest undeveloped deposits of copper and gold on the planet. The deposit is located 200 miles southwest of Anchorage on state land designated for mineral exploration and development.

While the Bristol Bay region of southwest Alaska possesses rich natural resources, including robust salmon fisheries as summarized in a May 31 Whatcom View by Pat Pitsch, it also faces extremely high levels of unemployment, one of the highest costs of living in the country and a steadily decreasing population as people move out of the region to look for work.

The mineral resource at Pebble has the potential to provide a major, new economic engine that will support the region's Alaskan native population, the state as a whole and the Lower 48 through the creation of high-wage jobs and billions of dollars in supply and service contracts and government revenues - which would no doubt positively affect Washington state and Whatcom County.

A recent study by IHS Global Insight estimates that the Pebble Project will have the following national economic benefits:

15,000 jobs during construction;

2,900 operational jobs with 915 on site;

$109,500 average salary of mine workers;

$2.7 billion added to U.S. GDP annually;

$8.5 billion to $9.9 billion in taxes during production.

Fishermen were paid around $1 per pound for sockeye from Bristol Bay in recent years, whereas the Alaska Fish Radio on May 20, 2013 reported that fishermen in Alaska's Copper River estuary were getting $4 per pound for sockeye at the dock when the season opened in May. The difference is not in the quality of fish but the high cost of electricity for refrigeration, processing, shipping and transportation costs in the Bristol Bay region. One of the major benefits of Pebble will be to bring lower-cost power and transportation infrastructure to the region, which could help advance long-term energy strategies for Alaska and make shipping goods less costly. How much more money could Bristol Bay fishermen earn for their product if Pebble was providing low-cost power for value-added processing and a means to get fresh salmon to market more quickly?

The people of Bellingham owe it to themselves - and to the people of Alaska - to wait until the full development plan for Pebble is proposed for permitting later this year before siding with groups attempting to block the development of a modern project that can provide real economic benefits for America. Bellingham fishermen could get a much higher price for their catches if the local processing plants in Alaska have access to low-cost transportation and electricity.

The Bristol Bay region is huge (some 40,000 square miles or roughly the size of Ohio), while Pebble would occupy less than 1/20th of 1 percent of the land base. In doing so, Pebble can generate economic benefits on par with the entire Bristol Bay sockeye salmon fishery. Pebble proponents say that healthy fish and mining can and will co-exist and Alaskans can enjoy the benefits of both. A world-class, modern mine built to meet the stringent requirements of Alaska and U.S. law should have no impact on the productivity of the Bristol Bay fishery. Perhaps the best example of productive salmon fisheries co-existing with resource development is right next door to us at the Highland Valley Copper mine in British Columbia. The mine is located near one of the greatest salmon rivers in the Pacific Northwest and one of its tailings embankments is situated three miles from the Thompson River, a major tributary of the Fraser. The mine has been in production since the 1960s, and has had no impact on the Fraser River fisheries.

The same Bellingham fishermen calling for the blockage of the Pebble mine also make a living from the fish that use the Fraser and Thompson Rivers to spawn.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Whatcom County resident Charles Forster is a geologist with more than 40 years of mineral exploration experience. He spent 8 years as the vice president of exploration on the Oyu Tolgoi Cu, Au property in Mongolia and is currently working on copper deposits in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

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