Bristol Bay stakeholders, legislators speak on the Pebble Mine topic

Posted: Sunday, March 20, 2011

When folks believe in their causes, they will work hard to see them through.

MICHAEL PENN / JUNEAU EMPIRE
MICHAEL PENN / JUNEAU EMPIRE

This is the attitude that brought a group of stakeholders in the life and economy of Bristol Bay to travel together to the capital to voice concerns over the Pebble Mine prospect to their legislators, and brought an organization of motivated high school students to let their lawmakers know about their own environmental concerns.

Residents, business representatives, subsistence users, commercial and sport fishermen plus others from Bristol Bay spent this week meeting with various legislators to ask for backup in supporting a 404(c) assessment by the Environmental Protection Agency, which is an assessment that would allow the agency to determine if mining could be permitted in the area or not.

Meetings were held with a number of legislators over a few days, including Reps. Alan Austerman (R-Kodiak), Bryce Edgmon (D-Dillingham), Scott Kawasaki (D-Fairbanks) and Bob Herron (D-Bethel) and Sens. Bill Wielechowski (D-Anchorage) and Hollis French (D-Anchorage), among others.

“I felt that we were met with understanding and appreciation from many of the legislators who already share some of our concerns about large scale mineral extraction and long term waste disposal in the salmon rearing streams that feed Bristol Bay’s world class fishery,” Katherine Carscallen of area commercial fisheries and Trout Unlimited stated in an e-mail.

She said even more heartening was she felt those from Bristol Bay have found some common ground through public process that will allow them to participate in making an informed decision.

Rep. Lance Pruitt, R-Anchorage, said the process part is especially important at this stage, as it is still early.

“At this point there is no Pebble Mine and no plan. We have to let every process go through the steps and the permitting process,” he said, noting that Alaska’s processes are very stringent and extensive in these cases and this is a positive thing as it takes all aspects into account, including influences to local ways of life and the environment. He said the opportunity to examine any project is a positive thing for the state.

“I told them I’m in favor of the process going forward,” he said. “At this time there’s not even a mine proposed but I’m against anyone shutting down proposing anything.”

Among the group was Kristy Jeffries and her mother, Charlotte Ballut, of Nondalton. Jeffries said such meetings were important because they represented the closest community to the proposed mine site. She said it was important to have a voice from there to give insight from this perspective, saying, “It does come to a point where it becomes personal for us to ask.”

Ballut agreed, saying it was important to give a voice to subsistence users. Both felt they were well-received.

Bristol Bay husband and wife Paul and Marilyn Hansen also spoke on the salmon issue as being necessary to subsistence and all ways of life there. Paul said, “In this case the EPA is not overreaching in their authority. This is a public process.”

Wielechowski said he was also glad to see public participation, saying “It’s always good to have people come in directly affected by the policies we make and how it will impact them.”

What’s more, he shares their viewpoint. He said he’s followed the issue for years while on the Resources Committee.

“I have some very serious concerns about the Pebble Mine. I’m not sure we can do it in a way that won’t have an impact on the fisheries,” he said. He also voiced concerns that with the recent earthquake in Japan, there could be consequences here and the proposed structures to hold waste and contaminants may not hold up.

Wielechowski also supported the appropriation of $750,000 last year for the National Academy of Sciences to evaluate the issue. “So I certainly support the EPA looking at it and it won’t cost the state anything,” he said.

Chris Branham, who runs a Bristol Bay business, also felt they got a positive reaction from most of their meetings.

“Our objective was to at least inform them of concerns in Bristol Bay,” he said, adding the legislators often said more information was necessary to make final decisions. He said the requests for more information was encouraging. “In that regard, we tried to make it clear our only option at this point would be to imply or request the EPA conducting the 404(c). The message is we need to definitely look at scientific data and hope that people in the region and legislators make the right decision regardless of if that’s positive or negative to either side.”

Herron was one of the ones who said more information is a necessary thing at this point.

Joining the fight with their adult peers was the Alaska Youth for Environmental Action, a program of the National Wildlife Federation to train and inspire youth in environmental issues. Among them was 16-year-old Heidi Kritz from Dillingham, who was also representing the youth group Rebels to the Pebble. She said she was glad for the chance to voice her opinions on why stopping the mine was important to her.

Kritz said the meetings were especially good because more young people should get to meet with government because it really helps them learn about voting. She said it was scary at first but governing bodies were encouraging of young people being heard more.

Relating to this, Joseph Ransdell-Green is taking part of a statewide campaign called the Wild Alaskan Salmon Campaign to raise awareness of wild salmon threats in the state. The 16-year-old Fairbanks student said this includes large-scale mining, specifically around major salmon streams, and protecting and wild fisheries from genetically modified salmon. He said more than 50 youths around the state have signed this resolution, plus more than 1,000 adults have signed a separate pledge, including politicians.

Pruitt said such interactions with the public and the youth are a good thing for the process as it develops.

“Those kids will get opportunity to speak on several occasions,” he said.

AYEA kids talked to their policy-makers about other issues on their minds besides the Bristol Bay watershed. From Healy, Emily Brease, 17, addressed bills in the House and Senate to prevent production of polybrominated diphenyl ethers and selling items with these chemicals, which are used as flame retardants.

Ransdell-Green came here for a civics and conservation summit and focused on ocean acidification. He is concerned about carbon dioxide absorbed in the ocean and said there’s a joint House resolution calling on more support for further research.

“We’re very thankful to legislators for meeting with us,” Brease said.

• Contact reporter Jonathan Grass at 523-2276 or at jonathan.grass@juneauempire.com.





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