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A House subcommittee heard more than two hours of testimony Wednesday on a bill designed to protect Bristol Bay fisheries - possibly at the expense the prospective Pebble Mine project.
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The bill, drafted by freshman lawmaker Rep. Bryce Edgmon, D-Dillingham, and receiving bipartisan support, calls for protecting salmon streams within various drainages that will affect Bristol Bay.
"The protective measures in place aren't good enough," Edgmon told the House Fisheries Committee. "There are going to be those who say this is a transparent attempt to stop the Pebble Mine or any industrial exploration. I can tell you the intent is to protect our way of life."
Steve C. Borell, executive director for the Alaska Miners Association Inc., didn't see it that way.
"It's clear that is his intent (to halt Pebble Mine project)," Borell said. "It would eliminate any commercial activity that isn't already there or permitted."
A single line in the bill saying no one may, "withdraw, obstruct, divert, inject, pollute or pump, either temporarily or permanently, any subsurface or surface water in drainages supporting salmon" drove a wedge between the two sides.
In doing so, the bill also renews a fierce debate over the potential benefits and dangers of the Pebble Mine project being pursued by Northern Dynasty Mines Inc., an Anchorage-based subsidiary of Northern Dynasty Minerals of Vancouver, British Columbia.
Bill proponents say a law is needed to protect some of the waters' fisheries, including one of the world's largest red salmon runs. It's also essential for protecting the watersheds of the Nushagak, Kvichak, Naknek, Egegik and Ugashik rivers, they said.
"Water is an integral part of every source of life," said RaeBelle Whitcomb of Dillingham after testifying. "It is the stage we all live on."
Opponents say the bill discourages economic diversity. Despite Edgmon's claim that he's not anti-mining, critics add that successful passage of the bill would kill the project, which can potentially rebuild depressed areas of the region.
"You are killing a gnat with a sledgehammer," said Trefon Angasan, a fisherman who qualified his stance by adding that he works for Northern Dynasty's outreach services.
The committee heard testimony from 18 people, who appear to be divided by the bill's potential impact.
However, letters and e-mails of support have been pouring into Edgmon's office and the office of Rep. Paul Seaton, R-Homer, who also oversees the House's fisheries committee.
Additionally, resolutions from the city of New Stuyahok and the Nondalton Tribal Council, collectively featuring more than 150 signatures, also arrived.
"The Bristol Bay watershed is an extraordinary resource," said Lindsey Bloom, who fishes on Bristol Bay. "It's hard for me to believe that even at this point there aren't special protections for the fish in Bristol Bay. (Last year) I had so many fish in my net, my boat almost sank. That speaks to the health of the salmon run."
Salmon fishing generates slightly more than $1 billion in annual economic activity, according to estimates by Juneau-based consultant Chris McDowell, whose firm recently produced a seafood economic report for the state. Bristol Bay accounts for about one-third of the Alaska statewide salmon value.