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Pebble again tops Bristol Bay's 2017 news

December 29th, 2017 | Carey Restino Print this article   Email this article  

The proposed Pebble Mine again topped the Bristol Bay region's news stories of 2017 as a new federal administration changed the game in what many thought was a dead deal. The controversial mine, once proposed as the largest open-pit gold, copper and molybdenum mine in the world, had all but shut down its bid to take root in the headwaters of the Bristol Bay salmon waters, but with President Donald Trump taking office, the protections of the area fisheries put into place by former President Barack Obama and action by the Environmental Protection Agency were reversed.

First to fall was an effort to block the proposed mine from filing federal permits. A lawsuit over a proposed determination in 2014 put the area of the proposed mine off limits for federal mining due to an analysis of the mine's potential impacts to the world's largest wild salmon industry. But earlier this year, the courts ruled mine developers can go ahead with the permitting process, a decision that drew protests from opponents of the mine.

The Pebble Limited Partnership said it planned to recast its plans, focusing on a smaller mine footprint, requiring new field data and infrastructure plans. Ron Thiessen, president of Northern Dynasty Minerals Ltd., the sole current owner of the Pebble Limited Partnership, said the mine company now plans a "smaller project design at Pebble than previously considered, and one that incorporates significant environmental safeguards."

Opponents to the mine were not swayed by promises of a smaller mine footprint.

"Pebble can tell you what they want, you just need to look on their website, they're going to mine it until the end until the last dollar until they can extract the last dollar out of that resource," said Russell Nelson, committee chairman for Bristol Bay Native Corp. "They can tell you it's small, but look at the cost of developing. They need to get their money out. They're in it for the money."

By fall, the details of the smaller proposed mine were released, detailing the new plans to mine a fraction of the huge deposit. The new plan backed away from using cyanide to extract gold, and would not build mine facilities in the Upper Talarik Creek watershed that feeds into Lake Iliamna. Though no official map of the proposed mine was released when plans were for a larger facility, the EPA previously assumed the mine would cover at least 13.5 square miles. The new plan proposes a 5.4-square-mile footprint. It also proposes an annual $500 dividend to Bristol Bay residents, as well as profit-sharing with village corporations and nonprofits in the region.

As the year drew to a close, Pebble announced it was submitting its federal permit applications, and had secured a new financial partner, Quantum Minerals. The Canadian mining company pledged enough financial support — $150 million — to see the project through the permitting phase, the Pebble Limited Partnership said.

Opposition to the mine plan continues, however, with many in the region expressing concern that once the mine became operational, it would expand its footprint.

The opposition is building, said Mark Niver, a Bristol Bay drift permit fisherman from Wasilla.

"We've really shouldered together, I mean everybody within the fishing industry in particular, just to say, 'Hey, this fishery is way too great to risk anything at all.'"

Fishing hot in Bristol Bay in 2017

Bristol Bay saw it's fourth-biggest salmon harvest ever this year, with 56.2 million fish passing through the region; a 35 percent increase over the preseason forecast. Harvests were some 10 million more than expected at 37.5 million fish.

All of Bristol Bay's managed rivers have met or exceeded their escapement goals, several district records were broken, and it seems quite a few fishermen logged their best seasons ever. Among those is Kurt Baumgart, who fishes the Ryne B in the Nushagak District. In August, he said he's not sure if he'll ever see another summer like 2017.

"I'd like to," he said, with a laugh. "It was phenomenal. I've never seen that much fish in the Nushagak or anywhere in the Bay. They were all the way from Schooner's Channel to West Channel. Just anywhere you went, you could put your net out and load up."

Baumgart is a 36-year-veteran of Bristol Bay's fishery, and said matter-of-factly that he is usually one of Trident Seafoods' top boats. The number of pounds he and his crew put away this season is staggering, though he didn't want to let that be public, for sake of it coming across as boastful.

Baumgart hopes this year's unexpectedly large harvest and higher base price will make for a rising tide that lifts a lot of Bristol Bay boats.

"It's great because we're going to this RSW required for everybody, so everybody's got a lot of money to spend on that. It's good times, good times for Bristol Bay right now."

The icing on that cake was a good coho fishery that kept nets wet through August.

"This year, we caught 175,000 coho, and that's the second best since 1996," ADF&G's Tim Sands said of the Nushagak District.

The total Bristol Bay coho catch climbed past 210,000 as all the districts but Togiak wound down the commercial effort. By district, Egegik had 7,000 coho on the books, Naknek-Kvichak 3,000, the Ugashik catch is confidential based on limited buyers and Togiak had 6,000.

Silvers fetched at least $.65 per pound, allowing for a lucrative tail end to an already record-breaking year in the Nushagak for those who stuck it out. Among those happy to have done so is Lance Spencer, who partnered with the Boukers at Ekuk.

"I've fished silvers when there's been markets here over the last 10 or 15 years, and I haven't seen a run like this," he said. "The fish really showed up. At some points it was similar to the peak of the red season with fish hitting the nets, nets loading up, and similar poundage on certain days."

Perhaps the only downside to the lucrative fish year was the difficulty many seafood processors had finding enough workers to handle the fish. Getting visas for foreign workers was more challenging this year, and the economy in the Lower 48 kept many workers home. Some processors had to resort to simplifying their processing techniques as a result.

King Cove road moves forward

After decades of heated debate, new federal leadership was not only a boon for the Pebble Project, but also for the King Cove road, an 11-mile road proposed through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge to connect the small community with the larger airport in Cold Bay. King Cove has long argued the road is needed because rough weather in the region often prevents the community's sick and hurt residents from getting help when they needed it.

President Donald Trump's Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke breathed new hope into the project earlier in the year, saying he was inclined to review the proposed road again after former Interior Secretary Sally Jewell shelved the project saying the environmental sensitivity of the region was too much of a risk.

The King Cove Land Exchange Act, introduced by Rep. Don Young, passed the House later in the year and many local residents say they hope the current administration will finally see the road through construction.

Airline service to Dillingham,

King Salmon, doubles

When your only way in and out is by air, a second airline coming to town is big news. Such was the case when Ravn Alaska announced in December that it would begin service to the region starting on Valentine's Day. Company management said it saw an opportunity in the region and planned three flights a day to and from Dillingham and King Salmon on weekdays.

Earlier in the year, PenAir — Peninsula Airways — filed for bankruptcy protection. The company, which serves eight communities including Unalaska, Cold Bay, King Salmon, Sand Point, Dillingham, St. Paul, St. George and McGrath, struggled from declining revenue from its contract with the U.S. Postal Service as well as debt from the $27 million it spent on a fleet of Saab 2000s two years earlier.

PenAir said that those struggles were largely behind them, however, and that they welcomed the competition of Ravn Alaska.

Ravn currently serves more than 100 Alaska communities with passenger, charter, and cargo service.

Scam victims see justice

In December, those who lost millions at the hands of scammer Floyd Jay Mann saw justice, as the criminal was sentenced to 10 years in jail.

The Puyallup, Wash., man drew many in Dillingham into a scam, saying he was sick and dying and needed money for life-saving treatments.

Judge Timothy Burgess handed down the sentence, which was above the guideline range. Two U.S. Marshalls escorted Mann from the courtroom on Burgess' order that he be remanded to custody.

"I think the only way to ensure he doesn't commit this crime again in the future is to ensure that he can't," said Burgess, concluding lengthy remarks that held Mann and his clever, but cruel, scheme in low regard.

During Mann's trial, the defense had argued that Mann's addiction to opiates, his use of up to nine 30-milligram oxycodone tablets a day over many years, was the driving force behind his scam. Burgess said he didn't buy it.

Mann's scheme, perpetrated over six years and involving some 15 victims, was "too sophisticated, devious, and calculated" to blame on drugs, he said.

"The idea that he was drug-addled to the point that he didn't know what he was doing doesn't hold up," said the judge. "I've been doing this for a while and haven't seen anybody come up such an elaborate, and yet preposterous" scam.

The link between Bristol Bay and Washington came through John and Clara "Tookie" Wren in 2011. He moved in just a few doors down, and one day offered to help fix the radiator in Tookie's car for free.

The topic of Mann's missing teeth came up once, and he said he had cancer and the teeth had been removed in an operation. Then he began concocting a story about having taken a drug called Levaquin, which he claimed was manufactured by Pfizer, and that the drug had caused his cancer. He was only supposed to have been prescribed it for "a short time, but he was prescribed it for a long time," and a lawsuit was close to settling.

John Wren himself was sick with colon cancer, and the couple hoped the settlement from the supposed lawsuit would fund John Wren's treatment. Mann promised them money from the suit in return for their donating funds to get him through until the settlement. But after months of giving everything they could to Mann to help him with his supposed treatment, the Wren's, who had moved to Washington to be closer to medical care, were out of money. They contacted friends in Dillingham for financial help, and the community rallied to support the scammer.

John Wren would later die from not getting treatment, while others lost their homes to the scam. Many said the experience shoot their faith in humanity.

Dillingham, Bristol Bay region respond to increase in opioid use

As with other regions of Alaska, the Bristol Bay region attempted to cope with an ever-rising number of people using opioids illegally by putting a drug to counteract overdoses into the hands of community members.

The Dillingham Public Health Center will receive Naloxone through a state program as one of several steps to combat opioid addiction and death in the Bristol Bay region, said Public Health nurse Gina Carpenter.

Naloxone is a medicine used to treat opioid overdoses in emergency situations, also known as Narcan. Carpenter will have it available at Public Health. Those concerned about people around them overdosing can go through a mandatory training and receive the Naloxone kits, she said.

"People can come independently to the Dillingham Health Center and I can provide (the training)," she said.

Carpenter said Dillingham is expected to be Alaska's first rural community able to distribute the drug through a public health center. Carpenter credited Andy Jones, who works with the Department of Health and Social Services, with getting the Naloxone to Dillingham through the statewide initiative. DHSS is coordinating distribution to rural communities through a partnership between its health emergency response arm, and the public health centers.

The state reported 52 deaths due to heroin and synthetic opioids in 2015, and 30 in the first nine months of 2016. Last year, the state Legislature passed a bill to make Naloxone more widely available by allowing pharmacists to distribute the drug without a doctor's prescription. That's meant to help combat those deaths. So far, its still only easily available in a few places, but eventually is expected to be available through pharmacies and other efforts statewide, including at hospitals and clinics in rural Alaska.

Naloxone is just one part of the effort to reduce heroin deaths. Several groups and entities in Bristol Bay are trying to stem the wave of addictions, and Carpenter said March 23 that she had new tools for that effort.

Saying goodbye

The community of Bristol Bay said goodbye to many friends and family members this year, including Jim McMurray, a longtime Dillingham Fire Department volunteer who died of cancer this year.

McMurray came to Dillingham in the 1970s as a pilot, flying first for a lodge then for Armstrong Air. He built his career around aviation and had an impeccable reputation as a pilot and aircraft mechanic. Dozens gathered to pay tribute to his 39 years of service as a volunteer firefighter and EMT.

He was truly an unsung hero, says DVFD chief Norman Heyano.

"He is. Whether it was for the fire department or EMS, cause he was an EMT, he always helped somebody. He never turned nobody down, and was very knowledgeable on the fire side of it. We're really going to miss him."

Singing praise

At the same time, the community recognized Alaska's first Rhodes scholar, an Aleut woman from King Cove, this year.

Samantha Mack, a 24-year-old Aleut woman, has become the first University of Alaska student to receive a Rhodes scholarship, one of the most prestigious academic honors in the world.

Mack learned earlier this year that she was one of the 32 top-ranking American students named 2018 Rhodes scholars and, she said, "I immediately started crying.

"I was in complete shock and disbelief," Mack said. "I think every time someone said 'congrats' to me I cried a little bit harder."

Mack was selected from a pool of 866 candidates nominated by their universities. While other Alaskans have received Rhodes scholarships in the past, none of them attended UA. The Rhodes scholarship program, which started in 1902, finances students' graduate studies at Oxford University in England.

Mack said she plans to pursue either a Master of Philosophy or Doctor of Philosophy degree in politics at Oxford next year.

"It will be the first time I'm studying where I won't have to work part-time or full-time," Mack said.


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