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Pebble Mine & the Clean Water Act

Posted: March 1, 2013 - 12:05am

While Alaska may host a wide variety of people, thoughts and ideas, I think we can all agree that salmon are an important part of calling this great state home. Whether in our belly, on the end of our line or in our net, salmon feed us, provide jobs and support a multi-billion dollar a year economy. Our salmon are iconic.

As an Alaskan and one of the 14,000 people who make my living in Bristol Bay, I’m troubled by the actions of many of our state’s leaders, including the words printed here by former Governor Frank Murkowski last week. His attacks on the EPA’s watershed assessment of the region are inaccurate and gratuitous. It’s a clear cut issue: our state government simply will not protect Bristol Bay, so the tribes and fishermen in the region asked EPA to step in. But more on that later on.

Over the last several years, state leaders have allowed the two foreign mining companies that make up the Pebble Partnership to string the people of Alaska along, teasing us with promises of a mine plan that will be “released next year.” Well, next year has yet to come and this scenario has forced communities and small businesses like mine to operate in the shadow of what might become America’s largest open pit mine for almost a decade. I am out of patience with having to make day-to-day business decisions without having answers about Pebble. Businesses thrive under market certainty.

Pebble has wielded their power over state government so much so that in 2006, when Pebble submitted water rights applications to the Department of Natural Resources (a stack of papers with detailed plans that is over a foot tall) they got their “first in line status” then promptly wrote a letter to the DNR essentially saying “We aren’t quite ready… could you hold our place in line?” The state responded in the affirmative by holding their place in line based on a mine plan that seems good enough for DNR, but not for the rest of Alaska or federal agencies looking into the issue.

In his recent op-ed, Governor Murkowski mentioned that the Bristol Bay land management plan allows mining at Pebble. Well, it does now. After all, it was in 2005 that his administration (made up of many mining professionals) ignored science and community input and swapped 93 percent of the lands designated for habitat and recreation use to a status where mining trumps other uses like fish habitat, recreation or subsistence.

It’s long past time for our leaders to say enough is enough. Out of frustration grown from being ignored by Alaska’s leaders, and being forced to live and operate businesses under a cloud of uncertainty, nine tribes from Bristol Bay, commercial fishermen and sportsmen turned to our United State government and asked them to use an important, but little used, tool put in place by the Clean Water Act to help protect our fish and fishing from irresponsible resource development projects in Bristol Bay.

The EPA is responsible for overseeing the Clean Water Act and has responded to the request in a fair, unbiased way. They’ve taken a comprehensive look at the region, its salmon and mining proposals in the region. They compiled scientific studies (including those conducted by the Pebble Limited Partnership), incorporated traditional ecological knowledge, encouraged input from communities, scientists and a wide variety of stakeholders. They based their mining scenario on Pebble’s own publicly available plans, which (as mentioned above) have been submitted to DNR. Plans have also been submitted to the Federal Securities Exchange Commission so that Pebble’s foreign parent companies might raise funds from the sale of stock.

The result is a draft Watershed Assessment that was released last May. The Assessment found that even if nothing goes wrong at Pebble, there would be a negative impact on salmon. Since then over 200,000 people have provided their input — many of them supporting the watershed assessment and encouraging moving forward to put Clean Water Act protections in place for salmon.

This provision of the Clean Water Act, if used, won’t stop responsible resources development projects. It won’t stop regular Joes and local communities from doing the usual: putting in a dock, boat landing, airstrip or gravel pit. It simply gives Alaskans the power to set standards in place that protect salmon from large-scale metallic sulfide mines in the Nushagak and Kvichak drainages. If a project meets standards set in place by the Clean Water Act then it gets a green light to proceed. However, if a project cannot meet upfront standards and restrictions it should not be allowed to proceed.

The Pebble Partnership likes to tell us in their fancy ads that mining of this magnitude and salmon can coexist; science tells us that it cannot, at least not in Bristol Bay. If Pebble truly believes in this coexistence, then they should not be opposed to upfront conversation about what should and shouldn’t be allowed in this region.

DNR’s large-mine permitting process is set up to permit mines, not to protect salmon. Using Clean Water Act section 404c in Bristol Bay is an approach that puts Alaskans in the driver’s seat, not profit-driven foreign mining companies.

Along these lines, it was refreshing to finally see an Alaskan leader standing up for small business, salmon, existing jobs and the concerns of a majority of Alaskans. In a recent news story, Senator Mark Begich reiterated his support of using science to inform decision-making in Bristol Bay. If EPA’s final report shows that massive-scale mining in Bristol Bay will kill salmon, that’s something everyone should know from the beginning.

I am grateful to Senator Begich for supporting science and a clear, clean process where Alaskans have a voice. He has demonstrated that you can be a sensible, strong leader — and that is what Alaskans are looking for. I hope you will join me in thanking the senator for his leadership and encouraging him to continue this levelheaded approach to supporting the renewable natural resources of Bristol Bay. It’s the only way to ensure that our rich wild salmon resources are around for Alaska’s future generations.

• Lyon is a long-time resident of King Salmon and is a sport-fishing guide in Bristol Bay. She is the owner and operator of the Alaska Sportsman’s Bear Trail Lodge on the Naknek River.

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