Bristol Bay Times
OPINION: Northern Dynasty should reconsider investment in court battle
January 23rd 2:17 pm | Carey Restino
Last week, Northern Dynasty announced it had raised $13 million selling shares to spend on its legal battles surrounding its claims at the proposed Pebble mine and restrictions proposed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Northern Dynasty, now the sole owner of the Pebble prospect located near Lake Iliamna in the Bristol Bay watershed, has been seeking new partners since the departure of its major partner Anglo American PLC two years ago.
As yet, no major mining companies have appeared eager to take on the challenge of jumping on board with a mine opposed by so many in the region, not to mention federal agencies like the EPA, which has proposed restrictions to mining in the sensitive region, citing the potential impact to the Bristol Bay fishery.
The federal agency's action has rubbed more than a few Alaskans the wrong way and solicited the battle cry of federal overreach in Alaska. So, despite Northern Dynasty Minerals' limited resources, the Canadian company has placed its bets for winning back some popularity on fighting the feds, a favorite Alaska pastime.
Meanwhile, back at the farm, rural communities in the region are struggling. At an EPA hearing back in 2013, many told EPA's newly appointed administrator Gina McCarthy that the jobs provided by the Pebble Partnership had given them hope and dignity for the first time. Now, those jobs are largely gone as Northern Dynasty has halted all exploration until it finds a major backer, and Northern Dynasty's stock continues to flounder at 40 cents a share, a pittance of the more than $20-per-share price it enjoyed back in 2011.
So, Northern Dynasty has decided to put a lot of money toward fighting back. Given that gold prices have fallen almost as dramatically as Northern Dynasty's stocks, it's questionable whether the proposed world class gold, molybdenum and copper mine would pencil out anyway. But regardless, they are fighting, and someone is willing to shell out money for that fight — at least $13 million anyway.
It's sad that such large quantities of money are being thrown around in court rooms and high towers while many in the mine region said they found life-changing comfort in a $20,000-$30,000 a year job. Unemployment in the Lake and Peninsula Borough region fluctuates between 6 and 11 percent depending on the season, numbers that have been creeping up ever since the '90s.
About 21 percent of the population lives below the poverty level, and the median household income is $51,786, which one must evaluate in relation to the high cost of living. Lawyers in the United States, by contrast, have an average annual income of three times that of an entire household in the Lake and Peninsula Borough. But they are the ones that will benefit from this last-gasp attempt from Northern Dynasty to push forward a project that surveys have shown is overwhelmingly opposed in the region, regardless of how people feel about the EPA's actions.
Sure, the $13 million wouldn't go far if you spread it around on a per capita basis in the borough. But what if that money were invested in some of the many projects on the borough's capital improvement projects list, projects that might reduce energy costs, or improve quality of life for residents, such as a teen center or an elderly care facility. There are roads that need to be rebuilt and docks that would connect the region with the Alaska Marine Highway System. The list goes on and on.
Or, alternately, if you took all the money that the federal government and supporting entities were going to spend on lawyers and combined it with Northern Dynasty's investment in the college fund for several lawyers' children, you would have enough seed money to start planning some sort of alternative job-creating operation — maybe a lodge or some other industry that capitalizes on the beauty and resources of the region without fear that the impacts could change their lands forever.
It seems unlikely that both sides would throw down their swords in the name of helping those caught in between, but who expected shareholder Rio Tinto, a British-Australian mining company, to bequest some 18 million shares to two Alaska nonprofits — the Alaska Community Foundation and The Bristol Bay Native Corporation Education Foundation — when it pulled out of the Pebble Project. Those two nonprofits sold those shares for $6.48 million each last June, which is nothing to shake a stick at in the nonprofit funding world.
Northern Dynasty could do the same — invest in the region rather than investing more money in court in the hopes of gaining back some of its lost profits despite what looks to most like insurmountable odds. Because $13 or $26 million might not mean much to a room full of suits, but it sure would mean something to rural Alaskans fighting for a way to eke out a life in the region they love.
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