BRISTOL BAY:

Activist priest joins campaign against mining project

An Orthodox priest known for his efforts to mediate disputes between Native communities and business interests has joined a lobbying campaign on Capitol Hill against a potential gold and copper mine in the Bristol Bay area of Alaska.

Father Michael Oleksa has for years spoken against the mining back home, but he made his first trip to Capitol Hill last week to tell lawmakers and their staff how the Pebble LP mine would forever damage Native Alaskan subsistence lifestyle and culture.

"I think their right to continue their way of life, both as commercial fishermen and as subsistence hunters and fishers, should be respected by the rest of the world," Oleksa said in an interview.

He added, "It's not just about the gold or the copper. It's not only an environmental issue for that. It's a deeply spiritual issue."

Oleksa brings a certain credibility to the discussion, having studied Native Alaskan culture and having spent significant time in rural Alaska for the past four decades. The Orthodox Church is also a powerful entity in Alaska with dozens of churches, many of them in the southwestern region.

"I am the cross-cultural guy," Oleksa said, because of his attempts over the years to mediate interactions between Native communities and business interests.

Oleksa said there is often a deep cultural divide that prevents both sides from understanding each other. Native Alaskans may not understand the "very strange, loud, disrespectful, arrogant, domineering city people."

At the same time, he said, non-Native residents or developers may not come to realize the cultural importance of nature, subsistence living, and acts like returning hunted food to the wild as an act of grace.

Oleksa offered an example: "When you realize that dribble can mean bounce the ball with your hand but can also mean kick the ball with your feet, depending on whether you are playing basketball or soccer.

"When we say hunting, when we say nature, when we say fishing, when we say water, we may mean, just like dribble, very different things in our own consciousness and we assume everyone is playing our ballgame," he said.

Oleksa, who was born in Allentown, Pa., and knows Washington, D.C., from his time at Georgetown University, is also recognized as an "elder" by the Alaska Federation of Natives.

He has helped bring other Orthodox leaders to the Bristol Bay area and pushed a resolution of churches to oppose Pebble unless the company "can show us where else on Earth they have in fact performed such development without poisoning or polluting."

One of Oleksa's wishes is for Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew I, archbishop of Constantinople, to visit the Bristol Bay area for the traditional blessing of the waters. The leader is known as the "green patriarch."

"I wouldn't say it's my full-time job. I have a parish and other responsibilities," Oleksa said about his anti-mine advocacy. "But I am asked to talk about this issue all the time because the authorship of that resolution was accurately traced back to me."

Lobbying frenzy

Oleksa's visit was part of a coordinated campaign by mine opponents to lobby against the project as U.S. EPA finalizes its watershed assessment of potential large-scale mining in the Bristol Bay area.

Trout Unlimited has been leading the anti-mine effort. Earlier this month, a new group called the United Tribes of Bristol Bay held high-level government-to-government meetings at various federal agencies, including with EPA water chief Nancy Stoner.

Mine opponents also touted a report saying that Bristol Bay-area fishery, which provides a significant chunk of the world's salmon, generates more than $1 billion to the national economy and helps support roughly 10,000 jobs (E&ENews PM, May 9). EPA has said a large mine would harm the fish.

And today the Natural Resources Defense Council announced a campaign with full-page ads in Washington and London publications. Anglo American PLC, one of the top companies behind the potential mine, is based in the British capital.

NRDC wants to ramp up support for EPA's revised draft watershed assessment as the agency receives a new round of public comments. Those are due by the end of this month.

"We also want policymakers inside the Beltway to see the faces of people whose lives, culture and livelihoods will be forever changed if foreign mining companies are allowed to develop Pebble Mine and its 10 billion tons of waste," NRDC attorney Taryn Kiekow said.

For its part, last week Pebble LP sent an action alert urging supporters to also submit comments to EPA. The mining partnership, worried about a possible pre-emptive veto of key permits, wants the agency to scrap its review.

The Alaska Resource Development Council noted that other Native Alaska groups, business groups and state officials "have opposed the EPA assessment until there is a formal permit application to properly evaluate the project and a thorough environmental impact statement is completed."

The company is also opposing a decision by the National Marine Fisheries Service to study the listing of an Alaskan population of harbor seals as a threatened species.

"We remain confident our project can proceed responsibly without affecting the habitat of the seal or its population," the company said in a statement.

Pebble not only thinks fishing and mining can coexist, it sees its project as the catalyst for much-needed economic diversification in the Bristol Bay region.

"We need economic engines that provide year-round jobs and taxes that support local governments and provide supply chain opportunities for business," spokesman Mike Heatwole said.

"The fishing industry in [southwestern Alaska] is important, but it is very seasonal and the benefits bypass the majority of locals," he added.

Oleksa, who says pre-mining development is already affecting caribou habitats, framed the issue through questions: "What future do we want for our children? Which way of life do we value?"

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