KING SALMON, AK – America gets over 60 percent of its seafood from Alaskan waters. Now a proposed open pit mine, which would be one of the largest in the world, has some residents here concerned. They’re worried that regardless of the economic benefits, giant ponds that would be used to store waste from the mine could pollute Alaska’s pristine waters.
Glen Alsworth, Sr., is at the center of the mine debate firestorm that is pitting fisherman against villager, politician against sportsman, and environmentalist against businessman.
Alsworth is in the crosshairs because of his role as Chairman of the Lake and Peninsula Borough assembly, one of the 16 boroughs in Alaska. The equivalent of being a County Executive in other states, his support of the Pebble copper and gold mine in the region would carry a lot of weight.
Alsworth’s clout also stems from the fact that his father was a pioneer settling the area on Lake Clark now known as Port Alsworth, AK, in the 1940s. And because today, the 58-year-old commercial pilot is a successful businessman in the region with 50 people employed in several travel-related companies.
Often called Mayor, Alsworth says he is one of the 1,500 residents in his borough living near the potential mine site.
“Initially, I was very supportive of the project,” says Alsworth. “I am now avowed neutral, awaiting a site specific detailed plan, so I can make an intelligent response to a concrete proposal.”
Referred to as The Pebble Project, the proposed mine has been controversial from the very beginning, when exploration picked up in earnest in the 1990s.
Since then Alsworth has met many times with representatives of the mine owners, The Pebble Partnership, whose preliminary plans propose the mining and processing of 10 billion tons of ore, which if approved, would be among the world’s largest.
Construction of the mine at Pebble would be massive, taking years and costing billions of dollars. It will require many miles of roads and bridges across vast wilderness, pipelines for fuel and water, large amounts of electricity, and construction of perhaps the second largest earthen dam in North America to contain the toxic byproducts of the mining process.
The Environmental Protection Agency has raised questions about potential risks but is weighing whether to prevent the construction of the Pebble mine. The fate of southwest Alaska’s lifeblood -- fishing in the Bristol Bay watershed, which is home to the biggest run of wild salmon in the world -- is at stake.
The locals refer to the run of tens of millions of salmon each year as “Red Gold,” because it produces hundreds of millions of dollars in the annual revenue of commercial fisheries.
Sport fishing is also an important part of the area's industry. Alsworth owns one of many lodges catering to sport fishermen exploiting the tremendous salmon populations. The native Alaskans in the Bristol Bay region also rely on harvesting of salmon for year-round subsistence. In all, 7,500 people live in the Bristol Bay region near the proposed mine.
Opponents argue that the mine would pollute and threaten the entire Bristol Bay watershed. Proponents argue that the project is already creating desperately needed jobs, and will provide much needed tax revenue, too.
“Brain power short circuited by wild emotion produces a lot of noise, flaring tempers, personal attacks and much mudslinging,” say Alsworth, “but not many tangible, productive solutions. “Instead of being threatened by obstacles,” Alsworth says he is “energized to craft solutions.” Alsworth recommends that any development capable of harming water supplies be required to place monitoring devices in all waterways that can be policed 24/7 by anyone via the Internet.
According to their website, the mine owners say they are committed to developing a world-class mine environmentally sound, and economically beneficial to the people of Southwest Alaska.
Just about every living person in the small villages in the Bristol Bay watershed will be impacted by the EPA’s decision on whether or not the mine project gets a green light -- but perhaps no one as much as Alsworth.
An entrepreneur at heart, in addition to the lodge that caters to nature goers and sport fishers alike, Alsworth owns a small air service. He acknowledges that he is hedging -- planning for either outcome.
In addition to ferrying tourist who come to the largest state in America seeking outdoor adventure, he also makes money transporting those affiliated with the mine drilling test wells, providing logistical support, etc. “Seven out of every 100” passengers he flies in the region are “associated in some way or another with the Pebble mine project.” But Alsworth is realistic about the impact his leadership role in the community will play in the final outcome.
“I think there are some folks out there that think it’s a dictatorship or that I’m a King,” says Alsworth. “If I say, it’s going to go, it’s going to go. Or if I say, it’s going to stop, it’s going to stop. Realistically, the Supreme Court can do that, I cannot.”
Alsworth’s decision may not be the final word, but much like his father’s pioneering days, his actions may have a major impact on the next generation.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This reporter knows the area well...fished these waters many times. It is one of the best fishing areas in the world, especially this time of year when the salmon run.