About

Tim Sohn is a freelance journalist based in New York and a Correspondent for Outside Magazine.

Stories

"All Will Be Revealed. Maybe," a review essay of Carl Hoffman's Savage Harvest, about the Michael Rockefeller mystery, incorporating my own reporting on the story.

"Powder for the Purists," on snowcat-assisted backcountry skiing in the southern Cascades at Oregon's Mt. Bailey.

"What a Catch," a look at the family of salmon fishermen bringing their products to Brooklyn and Portland via an innovative CSA-style distribution model.

"Operation Hollywood," a behind-the-scenes look at action film Act of Valor and the active-duty Navy SEALs who star in it.

"The Novelist," an interview with octogenarian writer James Salter, unrivaled prose stylist and all around legend, in Outside Magazine

"Artists in the Convent," a New York Times piece about a struggling Brooklyn parish that's opened its doors to artists.

"Shattered Idyll," in which I visited a soon-to-be-demolished ghost town on the Connecticut coast. Read it in the New York Observer or on Yahoo News.

"Graveyard Shift," a look at midwestern skiing at Paoli Peaks, Indiana, Skiing Magazine; read it here.

"The Life and Death of Shane McConkey," Outside Magazine; read it here.

"Gold Fish," a feature on the salmon fishermen of Bristol Bay and their fight against the proposed Pebble Mine, Outside; read it here.

"Everyman's Everest", a first-person account of my climb of Aconcagua (22,834 feet), Men's Journal; read it here.

 

Login
Search
Tuesday
Jan212014

Pebble Update -- Begich Jumps Ship: Pebble is “wrong mine, wrong place, too big”

Oxbows in the tundra, aerial view near proposed Pebble site (2010).

Until this week, Alaska's three-person Congressional delegation had presented a mostly united front on the controversial Pebble Mine, the massive and as yet un-mined copper, gold, and molybdenum deposit in Southwest Alaska, near the headwaters of the rivers that feed the famed Bristol Bay salmon run.

Their position: supportive of the mining companies’ right to explore the deposit and leery of any effort to quash the mine’s development preemptively, particularly if it came from outside the state’s borders. Pebble, they held, was an Alaskan resource on state-owned lands, and the decision ought to be made by Alaskans. Which is why they took offense to the EPA’s decision in 2011 to begin a study of the potential impacts of large-scale mining on the Bristol Bay watershed.

Last week, the EPA released the final draft of its Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment, concluding that a large-scale mine in Bristol Bay would represent an unacceptable risk to the region’s salmon-based ecosystem. It was that report, widely seen as the first step towards a potential action to block the mine, that seems to have goaded Sen. Mark Begich into coming out against the mine.

In an interview over the weekend with the Anchorage Daily News, Sen. Begich said of Pebble:

"Wrong mine, wrong place, too big," Begich said in an interview. "Too many potential long-term impacts to a fishery that is pretty critical to that area but also to Alaska, to world markets."

The “wrong mine, wrong place” formulation is a nifty one, allowing Begich to toe a line necessary for any Alaskan politician opposing Pebble: pro-mining in general, just opposed to this mine in particular. For those who have been following this issue for a while, there were clear, and likely intentional, echoes in Begich’s statement, one of which The Daily News picked up on:

Begich's language almost mirrors former U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens' wording back in 2008 when asked about Pebble at a campaign stop in Kodiak. "I am not opposed to mining, but it is the wrong mine for the wrong place," Stevens said.

On reading Begich’s words, I thought immediately of Stevens, but also of another Alaskan politician, Rick Halford, former President of the Alaska State Senate and now a vehement opponent of the mine. I can’t be sure that he originated it, but he has long used an eloquent variation of that mantra. Here’s what Halford said in June 2008 at the Pacific Fisheries Legislative Task Force meeting in Dillingham, as I reported in Outside Magazine:

Rick Halford, a former Alaska state senator who's generally pro-extraction but opposes the Pebble mine, summed it up at the Dillingham meeting. "Mining is an important part of Alaska's heritage," he said. "But this particular prospect, in this particular location, is a disaster for all time."

Coming on the heals of the EPA’s report, it was hard not to see Begich’s statements as a tacit endorsement of EPA action. According to the Daily News, that’s not the case:

Begich said he wasn't calling for EPA to veto the mine. Alaskans have been pushing him for years to take a stand, and with the study finally complete, he said it was time. His office has received about 2,800 communications from Alaskans against Pebble and about 280 in support of it, he said.

Naturally, the Pebble Partnership was not pleased and issued its own statement, in which they tried to portray Sen. Begich as in the pocket of a carpet-bagging, overreaching EPA. “We also are stunned that an Alaskan Senator supports the EPA—a federal agency acting unilaterally—to make decisions about future development on state land in Alaska,” it reads. The Senator’s statement, in their eyes, aids those who would seek to prevent them from a fair hearing via the state and federal permitting process. “There is no environmental harm whatsoever that will be caused by allowing Pebble into that [permitting] process.”

This has been Pebble’s response to criticism for years: wait until we have a mine plan, and then give it a fair shot in the permitting process. And while opponents say that the permitting process is rigged in the mining companies’ favor, and Begich grew tired of waiting for them to release a detailed plan, the two other members of Alaska's Congressional delegation seem to agree, at least in part, with Pebble.

As Murkowski told the Daily News, “I remain convinced that a preemptive veto of a mine or any other project, which the agency claims it can do under the Clean Water Act, would set a terrible precedent for development in our state and across the nation.”

Representative Don Young was a little more direct in his defense of states’ rights. “For the EPA to come into Alaska and lay the groundwork to preemptively oppose a project located entirely on state lands, and subject tot rigorous state permitting,” Young said in a press release, “is a serious threat to not only Alaska’s sovereignty, but the rights of states nationwide.”

But I wonder if, behind Rep. Young’s vehemence and Pebble’s outrage, there might be a hint of desperation. In September of last year, Pebble lost its major backer when Anglo American pulled out of the project, and in December, Rio Tinto, another global mining giant, said it was re-evaluating its stake in Pebble. For Begich, it seems the EPA report was the last straw. And now that he’s jumped ship, will others follow?

(Read more about the EPA's Bristol Bay Watershed assessment below or in my piece on the Huffington Post.)

Thursday
Jan162014

EPA's final report: Pebble Mine bad for salmon

Spawning run temporarily interrupted, with the Bristol Bay village of Nondalton in the background (2010).

I've got a piece up on the Huffington Post today summarizing the release of the EPA's final Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment document on Wednesday. Read it below, or click through to their site.

After nearly three years of study, the EPA released the final draft of its Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment this week, coming to conclusions in line with previous drafts: Large scale mining development in Southwest Alaska's Bristol Bay watershed poses a substantial risk to the region's ecosystem and its legendary salmon run.

The assessment compiled data relevant to evaluating the potential risks posed by several hypothetical large-scale mining scenarios. Of course, there was never any doubt about which hypothetical mine the report was aimed at: the Pebble Mine.

Pebble, for those unfamiliar, is a massive copper and gold deposit worth potentially hundreds of billions of dollars that sits at the headwaters of two of Bristol Bay's primary river systems. Those river systems, in turn, support the world's largest run of sockeye salmon and a robust fishing economy that contributes $480 million annually and upwards of 14,000 full- and part-time jobs. It has also been the backbone of the region's subsistence-based Native culture for thousands of years. It's not surprising that many Bristol Bay stakeholders aren't thrilled by the prospect of a massive open pit mine and its attendant tailings dams, road corridors and other development.

All of which helps explains why the project has become such a lightning rod -- it's the most controversial resource issue in Alaska and has attracted attention and opposition from well beyond the state. (For one example: see Robert Redford's take here). This study was initiated by a request from a group of Native tribes from the region, who approached the EPA in 2010 to ask that they block the mine's development by invoking section 404(c) of the Clean Water Act. Now, over three years later, after gathering data, holding public meetings, receiving over a million comments, and putting the study through two rounds of peer review by panel of independent scientists, the EPA has arrived at this final document.

In a conference call with reporters yesterday, EPA Region 10 Administrator Dennis McLerran had no answer for questions as to what sort of regulatory action the study might precipitate, or on what timeline, but on the findings of the assessment, he didn't mince words: "EPA has concluded that large-scale mining in the Bristol Bay watershed poses significant near and long-term risks to salmon, wildlife and native Alaskan cultures."

Jeff Frithsen, a senior scientist and special projects manager at the EPA's office of research and development in D.C, summarized the litany of potential effects -- ecological, economic, cultural -- resulting from each of the three hypothetical mine scenarios outlined in the study. In each case, he cataloged the risks posed both from a mine's routine operations and from potentially more catastrophic accidents or failures. The potential effects of even standard mining operations, as outlined by Frithsen, included the loss of dozens of miles of streams and thousands of acres of wetlands, as well as unforeseeable impacts on the 64 rivers and streams that the mine's transportation corridor would cross. (I encourage you to download the executive summary here for all the details).

Those who have been fighting against the mine were quick to endorse the study's findings. "We are pleased that the EPA has come to the conclusion that large scale mine development in the Bristol Bay Fisheries Reserve would endanger and put at risk the most valuable fishery in the world," said Anders Gustafson, Executive Director of the Renewable Resources Coalition, one of the primary groups fighting Pebble, adding that the study contained "exactly the kind of data" that will be needed in evaluating the project and others like it.

Of course, not everyone saw it that way. Northern Dynasty, the Canadian mining company developing Pebble, quickly issued its own press release titled, subtly, "Northern Dynasty Acknowledges Completion of EPA's Flawed Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment." "Publication of the final watershed assessment is really the final chapter in a very sad story," said Northern Dynasty CEO Ron Thiessen in the release. "We believe the EPA set out to do a flawed analysis of the Pebble Project, and they certainly succeeded with both their first and second drafts of the BBWA."

John Shively, CEO of the Pebble Partnership, the Alaska-based face of Pebble's development, concurred with Thiessen. "We have maintained all along that the Bristol Bay watershed assessment process has been rushed and thus has resulted in two very flawed documents," Shively said in a release, saying that the EPA did not commit enough time or resources to do a thorough job, and he criticized the hypothetical mine scenarios. "It must be remembered that the report does not assess the effects of the Pebble Project as we have not finalized nor submitted a project for regulatory evaluation." In Shively's eyes, without a mine plan from Pebble, the EPA is evaluating a fiction.

The mine's opponents dismissed such critiques. "If you don't like the outcome of the review, you are going to say it's bad data," Bristol Bay Native Corporation President Jason Metrokin told local TV station KTVA, while praising the process.

Flawed or not, the assessment is now final, which means people on both sides of the Pebble debate have the same question: What now? It's clear where this report comes down on the mine -- a bad thing -- but there's no inkling of whether those conclusions will lead to policy action and, if so, on what sort of a timeline.

The EPA has gone to great lengths to separate this phase -- the compilation and examination of the underlying scientific, economic and historical data --f rom any discussion of policy. In fact, page one of the report's executive summary says as much: "As a scientific assessment, it does not discuss or recommend policy, legal or regulatory decisions, nor does it outline or analyze options for future decisions." The EPA's position is, effectively: Now that we've gathered the information, we can begin thinking about what to do with it and how to respond to the tribes' request for regulatory action.

As it turns out, the situation may not be as urgent as it once seemed. After years of insisting that they were nearly ready to file for their mining permits -- "by the end of the year" was an oft-heard refrain -- the path forward for Pebble looks somewhat murkier. In September, Northern Dynasty's partner in the project, mini-giant Anglo-American, walked away from its 50 percent stake, taking a $300 million loss for its efforts and citing a need to streamline its mine development pipeline by focusing on lower risk mines with a higher probability of near-term payout. A month later, layoffs at Pebble began. And in December, global mining company Rio Tinto announced that it was reevaluating its 19 percent stake in Northern Dynasty, which represents its de facto investment in Pebble, with a possible eye on divesting.

All that being said, this story is far from over. Northern Dynasty has vowed to press forward with the mine's development, likely with a new partner to replace Anglo American. "The report does not change our plans," Mike Heatwole, spokesman for the Pebble Partnership, told me in an email. "Our immediate focus remains on working with Northern Dynasty in securing a partner to help advance the project."

Or, as a fisherman friend of mine commented after I posted a link to the EPA report, "Well, the deposit isn't going anywhere, so we'll see where it goes from here!"

Thursday
Jan092014

On Newsstands: Mt. Bailey in Skiing Mag

Happy New Year! Just a quick update to say that my report on a fantastic cat-skiing trip I took to Mt. Bailey, in southern Oregon, last March, is out in the current issue of Skiing Magazine. Thanks to Ross, Oz, and everyone else at Cat Ski Mt. Bailey for the hospitality! I'll post a link once it's online, but here's the short version: out of the way, but well worth the trip.

Monday
Nov112013

When the Road Ends, Keep Pedaling: The Road from Karakol

Fitz Cahall's inspiring film "35", about one rock-climber's unique 35th birthday challenge, won the Best Short Documentary award at the Banff Mountain Film Festival this past week, which got me thinking about another of his short climbing films, The Road from Karakol, which I had a chance to see earlier this fall.

I had only a vague idea of what to expect when I showed up at the Patagonia store in New York's Meatpacking District one night last month for a screening of The Road from Karakol. I knew it was a short film -- 25 minutes -- by Fitz Cahall, a climber and multimedia writer, director, and producer perhaps best known for his Dirtbag Diaries series. I knew it starred world-class alpinist Kyle Dempster, who has won climbing's highest honor, the Piolet d'Or, and who had shot the footage himself during a solo biking and climbing trip. I knew the trip was somewhere in Central Asia, but I did not know -- and this is a little embarrassing -- where Karakol is.

I also didn't know this charming film's rather charming backstory: Dempster basically showed up on Cahall's doorstep with a hard drive full of footage. Cahall dug into it and realized, quickly, that he had something worth pursuing, both in the journey itself and in Dempster's magnetic, occasionally off-kilter camera presence.

It turns out Karakol is in Kyrgyzstan, and Dempster headed there in 2011 with the goal of biking across the country via abandoned Soviet-era backroads, climbing as many Kyrgyz peaks as he could along the way. He had never bike-toured before, didn't know the language, and encountered roads that, when they even existed, were often not rideable. As the film goes on, things get occasionally hairy, as they inevitably will on any journey worth calling an adventure and Dempster becomes increasingly reliant on the camera as his only friend, a place to offload his doubts and fears. "The camera became kind of like my 'Wilson'," he said after the screening, alluding to Tom Hanks's volleyball-friend in the movie Cast Away. "You need something to talk to..."

The overall tone, which I'd describe as goofball bro meets iron-willed hardass, is set with the opening scene: Dempster naked by the side of a raging river, explaining to the camera that he needs to swim across in order to continue on his quixotic way. It is funny -- nearly a "Jackass" stunt -- but the stakes are real: he's hundreds of miles from anything, alone, with only the possessions on a bike. He is honest through the entire film -- there is no false bravado to mask his hesitancy and reluctance, though there is some nervous laughter.

The naked river crossing is actually deep into his journey and from that comical opening, the film takes us back to the start, on the paved and (relatively) plush roads leading out of Karakol and towards the mountains. You roll along with Dempster, through all manner of obstacles, and by the time you're back on that riverbank with him, you will have become enamored of this funny little story and the (naked) man behind it, as well as more apprised of the situation's seriousness. Dempster had basically backed himself into a corner, with river crossings behind him just as treacherous as the one in front of him, and couldn't see any option but to swim it. He was not happy about it, and nervous enough to record what amounts to a video last will and testament, a goodbye to family back home.

The voiceover can be a little overcooked -- "adventure exists at the intersection of imagination and the ridiculous" -- but in the end it's the kind of film, I wrote in a note to myself, that makes you want to test yourself, to go out there, and to be goofy and have fun while doing it. Which is to say: it accomplishes the goal of any good adventure tale and does so while keeping you entertained, mostly at Dempster's expense. Not to ruin the ending, but he does climb some peaks along the way, and eventually makes it back to civilization. It's a sweet little ode to the enduring value of quixotic characters like Dempster, one man pointing his compass at a goal on the horizon and continuing towards it unwaveringly.

As the film's closing credits rolled, alongside outtakes of some of the trip's more vodka-soaked moments (and there were many -- nearly everyone Kyrgyz man he met, including the cops, plied him with booze), Dempster bounded to the front of the room for a Q&A session. It was his second day ever in New York City, and he was clearly energized by it, though somewhat abashed at being in the spotlight. "That, ladies and gentlemen, is a lesson in the dangers of full honesty cinematography."

Soon, he was asked about the nudity after the screening. "Well, getting naked to cross the river: mostly I didn't want my clothes to get wet," he said, before copping to another motivation. "But yeah, it's funny. I mean, if you're going to go to the trouble of documenting it all, you might as well have fun with it, right?"

Friday
Nov082013

McConkey Movie: Q&A with Sherry McConkey

Up now on Outside online is my Q&A with Sherry McConkey, widow the late skiing and BASE-jumping pioneer Shane McConkey, in anticipation of wide release of the documentary McConkey.

 

 

The interview that follows got bumped out of the November issue of the print magazine, but looks just as good online, and is still timely: The film is currently touring the country (it's in Minneaopolis tonight--check the movie site for all tour dates), and also available on iTunes

Read the rest at Outside online here. (And if you're looking for more backstory to the McConkey legend, might I suggest my 2009 feature about Shane's life and death.)

Friday
Nov012013

What a Catch: Brooklyn Salmon Share

Recently, I was asked by OnEarth, the publication of the NRDC, to tag along with Christopher and Emily Nicolson, the Brooklyn couple behind a CSA-style cooperative that brings wild Alaskan salmon to voracious Brooklyn foodies via their company, the Iliamna Fish Co. The salmon they distribute is caught every summer by Christopher and his extended family in a part of Bristol Bay where three generations of his family have fished.

Fantastic people and a fun story to report, for a variety of reasons, some of them personal: Christopher is my summer-time neighbor in Alaska--I fish in a spot near where his family does, and we are based out of the same tiny, hobo-style fishermen's camp--and my skipper up there is fisherman-photographer extraordinairre Corey Arnold, whose photos of Christopher, and of our fishing life up there, accompany this piece. 

 

Read the whole thing at OnEarth now, and if you still want to read more about the Iliamna Fish Co, check out Red Sea, the piece I wrote about the Portland side of their operation last year for Portland Monthly, again with a fantastic selection of Corey's photos. 

Saturday
Oct052013

One Life to Live: McConkey Film Premieres at Squaw

Today marks the culmination of a four-year journey to bring the life of skiing and BASE-jumping pioneer Shane McConkey to the big screen. With the debut of the feature doc McConkey today at Shane's home mountain of Squaw Valley, his friends, family, and collaborators are unleashing the film on a wider audience. (Click the movie link for additional cities, showtimes, etc.) To mark the occasion, I've reposted my account of attending the film's premiere this spring at the Tribeca Film Festival. This first appeared in the online magazine Frontier Psychiatrist, and is now, slighly tweaked, up on the Huffington Post: 

Shane McConkey was already recognized as one of the most influential skiers of all time when he died at 39 in a BASE jumping accident in the Italian Dolomites in 2009. One of the driving forces behind the birth and popularizing of freeskiing and the hybrid sport of ski-BASE jumping that ultimately took his life, McConkey was a gifted athlete, an innovative thinker, a charismatic leader, and also a complete goofball. Four years after his death, his spirit lives on in the new film McConkey, a documentary chronicling the full scope of his life that is kicking off its wider release with a premiere on Saturday at McConkey's home mountain, Squaw Valley. For anyone with even a passing interest in skiing, adventure, and a life lived with passion and purpose, it's worth seeing.

I was fortunate enough to attend the film's debut at the Tribeca film festival last spring, with a crowd that included Shane's family and closest friends, as well as his former co-conspirators and colleagues, a rogue's gallery of world-class athletes and people whose job it is to ski down steep things and jump off high ones, as well as those whose job it is to film them, come what may.

I am well outside of that inner circle, but I count myself as one of the many whose lives Shane touched in a small but meaningful way. In 2005, he and his friend Miles Daishertaught me how to BASE jump off of the Perrine Bridge in Twin Falls, Idaho. I remember the minute before I jumped, so nervous I could barely breathe, looking to my left and seeing Shane sticking his tongue out and going cross-eyed. Tension broken. A moment later, he dropped the clownish face, clapped his hand on my shoulder, and said I was about to have the experience of my young life. He was not wrong. I bumped into him a couple times subsequently, but it was in researching the story I wrote about his life and death for Outsidein 2009 that I truly came to appreciate everything Shane had been and the scope of what had been lost. So I watched McConkey with a lump in my throat, cringing while jotting down notes, like this quote from a 20-something goofy-grinned Shane: "I'm getting maximum enjoyment out of life and I'll never stop."

Read the rest of the piece here.

Wednesday
Sep182013

As Anglo Exits, Future Murky for Pebble Mine

Pebble employees looking out over the potential mine site, 2010.On Monday morning, before most Alaskans were out of bed, an announcement half a world away set the agenda for their day and threw into disarray one of the state’s largest and most controversial resource development projects. In London, global mining giant Anglo American announced that it was pulling out of the environmentally problematic Pebble Mine project, the massive copper, gold, and molybdenum deposit that sits near the headwaters of the famed Bristol Bay salmon run, which it had been developing as one half of the Pebble Limited Partnership (PLP), a joint venture with Canadian mining company Northern Dynasty.

“Despite our belief that Pebble is a deposit of rare magnitude and quality,” said Anglo CEO Mark Cutifani in a statement, “we have taken the decision to withdraw following a thorough assessment of Anglo American’s extensive pipeline of long-dated project options. Our focus has been to prioritise capital to projects with the highest value and lowest risks within our portfolio.”  

Though Anglo will take a $300 million loss, the move fits with the company’s new strategy, embracing what Cutifani called a “value-driven capital allocation model” and attempting to deploy their capital to greatest effect, which would mean cutting costs associated with long-term, pre-approval development of non-producing deposits like Pebble. By withdrawing, Anglo has left junior partner Northern Dynasty, which has never developed a mine on its own, all alone, but the move was not, the company said, any sort of judgment on the merits of developing the deposit or the “opportunities and benefits that such an investment may bring to Alaska.”

But in Alaska, where a coalition of conservation groups, fishermen, and Native groups have been fighting against Pebble’s development for over a decade, many saw cause for celebration: this was, to their eyes, a huge victory for the local Davids over the mining company Goliath.

“It’s a major, major victory for the people of Bristol Bay,” said Robin Samuelson, chairman of the Bristol Bay Economic Development Corporation and mine opponent, in an interview with local NPR station KDLG. “And more importantly it’s a major, major victory for the resources.”

Chief among those resources: the world’s greatest remaining run of wild sockeye salmon, the fish that is the economic, cultural, and ecological backbone of the region. The threat posed by large-scale mining to the salmon’s pristine spawning grounds at the headwaters of Bristol Bay’s rivers galvanized a broad spectrum of mine opponents, all focused on making themselves an annoying enough thorn in Anglo’s side to cause them to reconsider their plans for Bristol Bay.

And they do deserve some credit. If Anglo’s cuts are an effort to address a pipeline of future mines that Cutifani said in July had become hopelessly “constipated”, Pebble represents a substantial, uncomfortable, and unprofitable blockage, sucking up more resources year after year, getting no closer to breaking ground while attracting more vocal—and higher level—criticism all the time.

The news went out like a dam bursting, and investors took notice: trading floors around the world reacted briskly, and if you happened to have Northern Dynasty (NAK) shares in your portfolio, Monday morning was unpleasant. After closing at $2.22 on Friday, they plummeted through the morning, dropping 40% to $1.33 by 11am—7am in Alaska—before rebounding slightly to end the day down 30%. Investors, it seemed, were unconvinced by the assurances in Northern Dynasty’s release that plans for the mine would proceed. “Northern Dynasty and the Pebble Partnership,” said CEO Ronald Thiessen, “have both the expertise and resources necessary to advance the Pebble Project.”

In Anchorage, things were a little confused on Monday. Northern Dynasty had only been alerted of Anglo’s plans on Friday, and those on the ground there seemed somewhat shell-shocked. Local Pebble employees received little warning, and even the email sent out to staff that morning, while promising to press forward, seemed listless. “Pebble remains an important project for Alaska,” it said, “and we will share additional information about the way forward for the project in the days and weeks ahead.”

Whatever happens next, it seems certain that Pebble’s stated goal of releasing a mine plan later this year and applying for mine permits late this year or early next is in serious jeopardy, with Northern Dynasty hobbled, cash-constrained, and getting pummeled in the markets. But while they might be temporarily knocked down, they are far from out, and are certainly in a much better position than they were before Anglo came along. Anglo has invested $541 million in the project, well short of the $1.5 billion it committed when PLP formed in 2007, but enough to fund almost all of the site exploration, deposit mapping, environmental studies, and other work needed to initiate the permitting phase. What’s more, because Anglo apparently failed to meet an undisclosed spending threshold, Northern Dynasty owes them nothing.

So by the end of the day, though still reeling, the folks at Pebble seemed to have found their footing.  “I still believe we have a very good project, [and] I believe we have a project that can meet the environmental concerns people have,” said Pebble CEO John Shively in an interview with KDLG, before admitting that, when it comes to the plan going forward, “we don’t know at this point and probably won’t know for a bit.” But nothing, he said, was over. “If you look at projects like this around the world, they’re almost all done with two or more partners, so I think it’s likely that at some point there would be another partner.”

The mine’s opponents agree: for them, this is just a brief pause in a long battle. “We will not back off of our ongoing work as a campaign to oppose development there,” said Bob Waldrop, executive director of the Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association, one of the groups that has actively opposed the mine, in a KDLG interview. “This does not eliminate development of Pebble Mine. This just means we’re back to Northern Dynasty, which is where we were before Anglo came in several years ago. Northern Dynasty will shop it around and will, in all likelihood, find another partner. So we are not going to rest on this news, and we will pursue our ongoing strategies, as well as the long term one of a permanent solution.”

At the top of their permanent solution wish list: convincing the EPA, which has undertaken a thorough assessment of the Bristol Bay watershed, to block the mine by invoking its authority under section 404c of the Clean Water Act. Read more about that, and EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy’s recent trip to Alaska, here.

Thursday
Sep052013

One Life to Live: Shane McConkey at Tribeca Film Fest

My account of the premiere of McConkey, the documentary charting the life and death of skiing and BASE-jumping pioneer Shane McConkey, at the Tribeca Film Festival, and a semi-review of the film, is now up in the online arts and culture magazine Frontier Psychiatrist.

Tuesday
Aug272013

EPA Administrator Visits Bristol Bay

On the south shore of Lake Iliamna, 2011.

The biggest thing happening in Alaska this week: a visit by nearly-new EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, who’s there to familiarize herself with several issues in the state. It is one of the first trips since McCarthy’s confirmation by the Senate last month, and though other stops on her itinerary will highlight issues like climate change and air quality, it is her visit to Bristol Bay today to hear the local perspective on the controversial Pebble Mine that seems to be what’s driving the itinerary.

The debate over the so-called Pebble Mine, a rich lode of copper, gold, and molybdenum ore that sits near the headwaters of the rivers that sustain Bristol Bay’s legendary salmon run, has been one of the most divisive issues in Alaska for over a decade now, pitting fishermen, locals, and Native groups against the mining consortium developing Pebble and the state’s traditionally pro-extraction values. The issue has been rising in prominence over that time, with each side attracting allies, but it entered a new phase in February 2011, when the EPA, at the invitation of local and Native groups, initiated the Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment, an attempt to gauge the potential effects of large-scale mining on the Bristol Bay ecosystem. The assessment has been through drafts and peer reviews, with the agency aiming to release a final version by the end of the year. Pebble's opponents hope that the EPA will use its powers under the Clean Water Act to block development of the mine.

It’s worth pointing out that there is some symmetry here: McCarthy’s predecessor as Administrator, Lisa Jackson, visited Bristol Bay in 2010, just before the EPA initiated its watershed assessment, and now, as they prepare to release the assessment later this year, McCarthy is making her own visit. But the EPA and McCarthy have cautioned against reading too much into the timing other than that she’s new on the job, this was an issue she wanted to familiarize herself with, and the weather in that part of Alaska will soon make travel difficult until spring.

“Obviously her visit to Bristol Bay reflects that it’s a priority for her, and the trip needed to happen soon while the weather was still decent,” said Marianne Holsman, the Public Affairs Director for EPA’s Region 10, when I spoke with her last week. “She gets that this is a very important issue and that it makes sense for her to talk to people on the ground and get up to speed.”

And while she spent Monday touring the Portage Glacier outside of Anchorage, using the press op in front of the shrinking glacier to highlight her primary mandate from President Obama—addressing climate change—the anticipation was all about Tuesday’s itinerary, which had the Administrator visiting the fishing hub of Dillingham in the morning before heading northeast to the village of Iliamna, home to the Pebble Partnership’s exploration operations, for a helicopter visit out to the deposit site followed by a meeting with members of the local community. (Additionally, there were rumors that she would be meeting with other local and tribal groups, including the Bristol Bay Native Corporation, the powerful regional Native corporation that has taken a strongly anti-Pebble stance.)

I haven't yet seen any reports from the Last Frontier about what actually went down, but for anyone who’s been following the Pebble fight, what she hears at each location will likely echo what we’ve heard before:

- In Dillingham, Bristol Bay’s largest community, with an economy buoyed by its role as seasonal fishing hub and headquarters for the region’s various governmental and tribal offices and agencies, she’ll hear about the dire threat the mine would pose to the fishery, the ecosystem, and their way of life.

- At the deposit site, which McCarthy will tour with Pebble CEO John Shively, she will hear about the richness of the ore body and the extreme care that the Partnership has taken to carry out their exploration sensitively, with minimum impact on the ecosystem and maximum benefit to local communities. She will hear about modern mining technologies that will make this massive open pit safe, and she will hear about its small footprint relative to the size of the region. She will hear Shively say something like this: “The fish are number one. If we can’t find a way to protect the fish, we can’t move forward with this mine.” She will likely not hear much about a definite timeline for permit applications to be filed.

- And in Iliamna, the lakeside community that has seen the most economic benefit from the exploration options, and which would stand to benefit most from the mine itself, she will hear the economic argument for the mine. She will hear about the lack of economic opportunities in rural Alaskan communities and their desire for a solution that permits mining while protecting fish. She will also hear requests to let due process run its course, to let the permitting process work without its being cut off preemptively by federal interference.

For their part, the EPA and McCarthy have stuck to their explanation that this Bristol Bay trip is just about putting the new Administrator’s feet on the ground and listening to all points of view. “Right now we’re in a fact-finding mode to make sure we get the sciencne correct and we understand the impacts in that area,” McCarthy told reporters during her press op Monday at the Portage Glacier. “Then we will work on what that means for decisions.”

So, as has become the norm in the Pebble story: wait and see.