Two public opinion polls commissioned by an environmental group opposed to the Pebble Mine project are being touted as proof that Bristol Bay Region residents and voters statewide believe, by and large, that open-pit mining is not worth the risk.
But the project's owners, Northern Dynasty Mines Inc., say the opinion polling released recently by the Renewable Resources Coalition (RRC) "flies in the face" of the mining company's own research commissioned this past summer meant to gauge public sentiment and identify key issues surrounding the Pebble project.
The story appears to be one of dueling polls.
The RRC polls were conducted by Hellenthal and Associates, which sought the opinions of about 400 Bristol Bay region registered voters, and by The Cromer Group of Washington, D.C., which polled 607 voters statewide.
According to the coalition's CEO, Scott Brennan, the Hellenthal survey, conducted Oct. 11-18, found that overall opposition to the proposed Pebble Mine was 70.6 percent in the bay region, with 20.7 percent favoring the project and 8.7 percent undecided.
That poll also found, according to Brennan:
* In larger population centers, opposition to mine development was greatest in the Dillingham/Aleknagic area, where 79.6 percent were opposed, 15.1 percent in favor and 5.3 percent undecided.
Even where opposition was least, the King Salmon/Naknek area, those opposed still made up 50.4 percent, while 43.3 percent were in favor and 6.2 percent undecided.
Bristol Bay Native Corp. households opposed the mine by 71.9 percent, with 17 percent in favor and 8.6 percent undecided.
Other data showed the more educated a person was the more likely he or she was to be opposed to the mine, and Alaska Natives were opposed to the mine by better than three to one.
The random-digit dialing survey had a margin of error of plus or minus 4.9 percent.
"The Alaskans living downstream from the proposed Pebble Mine have evaluated Northern Dynasty's plans, weighed the pros and cons and decided open-pit mining is not worth the risk," Brennan said. "We believe local residents, not Canadian corporate executives, should decide our state's future. It is time for all Alaskans to join Bristol Bay in rejecting this ill-advised project."
Northern Dynasty Mines Inc. is an American subsidiary of Northern Dynasty Minerals Ltd., a Canadian corporation based in Vancouver, British Columbia.
The RRC says the Cromer Group survey, conducted Sept. 25-27, found similar results, including that:
53 percent of voters statewide oppose opening the Pebble Mine, with 28 percent favoring the project and 19 percent undecided.
Four of every seven women and half of all men surveyed oppose the mine.
A majority of voters in all party affiliations oppose the mine with Democrats and Republicans nearly matched at 62 and 61 percent opposed, respectively. About 49 percent who said they were independents were also opposed.
Half of all voters polled said they thought the Pebble Mine was a threat to Alaska's quality of life.
56 percent felt the mine poses an environmental threat to the water quality of Bristol Bay and 61 percent agree that the damage from Pebble mine would forever threaten the subsistence way of life in the mine area.
64 percent of those polled by Cromer were in favor of halting the mine project because NDM had first promised to avoid Upper Talarik Creek (an important salmon and trout spawning area), but later applied for water rights there.
The Cromer survey, also using a random-digit dialing method, tapped opinion in six regions - Southeast, the Kenai Peninsula, the Matanuska and Susitna valleys, Fairbanks and rural Alaska. It had a margin of error of 4 percent.
On Oct. 27, Northern Dynasty Mines Inc. issued a response and rebuttal to the RRC's claims.
According to NDM, a survey commissioned by the mining company and conducted between July 27 and Aug. 7 by The Dittman Research and Communications Corp. of Anchorage sampled opinion from 509 Alaska residents. It found that 45 percent of Alaskans support the Pebble project, while 31 percent were opposed and 24 percent unsure.
"The polling results that the RRC released (Oct. 27) are so wildly inconsistent with our own research findings that we can't help but question their legitimacy," said Bruce Jenkins, NDM's chief operating officer. He added that research questionnaires could be developed in such a way "that they manipulate or 'push' public opinion," and that he had "serious questions" about how RRC constructed its surveys.
He did not elaborate specifically on what it was about the RRC's surveys that led to those questions, however. Jenkins did say that NDM's survey had been developed "to objectively measure pubic support and opposition to the Pebble Project in the absence of any supportive or opposing arguments."
The Dittman poll asked if respondents were aware of the project planned for the Lake Iliamna area, and based on what they knew, whether they favored or opposed approval of the project. Those questions elicited the 45 percent favorable response noted above.
Jenkins said the Dittman poll went on to survey whether respondents' support for or opposition to the project was influenced by a series of positive and negative statements.
When information about economic benefits and jobs was provided, the number of responses in favor of the project rose to 67 percent, Jenkins said.
"I'd encourage anybody looking at the RRC data, particularly the news media, to do so with a skeptical eye," Jenkins said.
Brennan said Tuesday that the RRC stands behind its polling data and that, within the margins of error, the Cromer determination that 53 percent of Alaskans opposed opening the Pebble Mine is consistent with the Dittman poll showing 45 percent statewide were in favor of the project.
But he also said Pebble has serious negatives compared to other resource development ideas, such as opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and that Pebble may be the least favored development project in the state's history.
Hal Spence is a reporter for the Peninsula Clarion.
- 183 Environment