Alaska Water Wars

The issues surrounding the proposed Pebble Mine in Southcentral Alaska are complex, but for reporter Daysha Eaton and photographer Brian Adams, it really boils down to people and water.

"I got bills to pay. Gas ain't cheap in the village, electricity ain't cheap, oil ain't cheap to heat the house. There's nothing cheap in the village. That’s up to them. I’m just here trying to get some work done, trying to make some money for the family there, support them.” — Clinton Hobson, Kokhanok resident, Pebble Mine site employee.
“I got bills to pay. Gas ain’t cheap in the village, electricity ain’t cheap, oil ain’t cheap to heat the house. There’s nothing cheap in the village. That’s up to them. I’m just here trying to get some work done, trying to make some money for the family there, support them.” — Clinton Hobson, Kokhanok resident, Pebble Mine site employee. Photo credit: Brian Adams

Their five-part series on KNBA called “Alaska Water Wars,” which premiered on Dec. 4, took Eaton and Adams to villages near the proposed mine site where they talked to locals, activists and officials to give those most likely to be affected by the Pebble Project a chance to be heard.

“A lot of the discussion around Pebble Mine is about economics, but what I’m talking about is culture,” Eaton said.

In 2014, it seemed like the mine had hit its final roadblock. Environmentalists, fishermen and locals criticized the mine, but it was the Environmental Protection Agency that officially ruled Pebble to be too risky. Earlier this year, under President Donald Trump’s administration, the EPA backed away from its determination, giving the mine a chance to move forward.

Located about 200 miles southwest of Anchorage near waterways that flow into Bristol Bay, the mine would be the biggest in Alaska at around 13 square miles. Opposition to Pebble mostly concerns its proximity to where nearly half of the world’s Salmon come to spawn every year.

While salmon fishing is a billion dollar industry in the area, Alaska Natives have relied on harvesting food from the area’s pristine waters for thousands of years.

“It’s not just the center of their diet, it’s the center of their culture,” Eaton said.

The series, partially funded by the Alaska Humanities Forum, was born out of covering the Dakota Access Pipeline. Eaton was at the Standing Rock Reservation on her own dime filing stories about Alaskans protesting the DAP. She was looking for something new after working at radio stations in Dillingham, Bethel, Anchorage and Homer.

Adams went to Standing Rock after seeing news footage of protestors getting sprayed with water cannons and shot with rubber bullets. He was going in blind and alone, so it was suggested that he contact Eaton who could help him with logistics.

While they never actually met up at Standing Rock, both Eaton and Adams were impacted by their time there.

“What I realized through that experience was that it is so important to have indigenous voices in the stories and in the reporting that journalists are doing early on,” Eaton said.

Media coverage of the DAP protests began towards the end of the pipeline being built and only after the situation had escalated, Eaton said. In their rush to meet deadlines, journalists tend to miss the opportunity to form relationships with indigenous people and to include those perspective early on in reporting resource development conflicts.

With “Alaska Water Wars,” Eaton wanted to bring Alaska Native voices to the forefront.

“This is a journalistic inquiry. I’m not for this mine or against it, but I think it’s really important to have the native voices in the conversation and to realize that underneath it all, this is about water,” Eaton said.

Resource development conflicts usually relate to water in some way or another, Eaton said — from logging close to waterways in the Tongass National Forest to transboundary mining in Canada that could pollute Alaska watersheds.

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“Whatever happens [at Pebble Mine] will affect the traditional territories of the Native people and it’s pretty much the case with all of these development projects, is the first people that are going to be affected are the indigenous people,” she said.

In addition to hosting Eaton’s five-minute radio pieces, the “Alaska Water Wars” website includes print versions of the stories and photographs by Adams. The duo went to six villages where Eaton would conduct interviews while Adams provided a needed visual element to the series. He was fresh off his successful environmental portraiture series “I Am Inuit” and found similarities between the human aspect of the projects.

“I really just want people to be more aware and accountable for the way they take care of Alaska,” Adams said.

Eaton hopes people take away the fact that the situation isn’t black and white. She said there are issues of economics and poverty underlying the conversation with a diversity of opinions within Native communities and even within families.

“I hope that people will be able to see themselves and each other more clearly and have more empathy and understanding about what’s going on here,” Eaton said.

Eaton and Adams are planning to continue “Alaska Water Wars” in some form or another covering other development conflicts in the state.

To listen to the complete series and see additional content go to alaskawaterwars.org.

Financial support for this reporting was provided by the Alaska Humanities Forum and KNBA public radio.