ANCHORAGE - A Native leader and fishing groups traveled to the nation's capital this week to try and stop development of a huge copper and gold mine in southwest Alaska.
The Pebble Mine is near some of the world's most productive wild salmon streams and is being readied for permitting beginning next year.
Tom Tilden, chief of the Curyung Tribal Council, said six tribes in the Bristol Bay area are seeking Washington's help because state officials refuse to hear their concerns. With permitting to begin as early as next year, the tribes are worried, Tilden said.
Alaska never saw a mine it didn't want to permit, Tilden said.
"It seems as though we always run into a roadblock when we talk to state officials," he said. "It seems as though every mine that has gone through the application process has been OK'd."
Tilden was accompanied on the trip by officials with conservation group Trout Unlimited and two business groups, the Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Marketing Association and the Alaska Independent Fishermen's Marketing Association.
Former Alaska Senate President Rick Halford, a strong opponent of Pebble, also was part of the delegation that spent several days in Washington visiting the Environmental Protection Agency and stopping in at Alaska, Washington and Oregon's congressional offices. Those states were chosen for their connection to the Bristol Bay salmon fishery.
Trout Unlimited's Alaska program director Tim Bristol said the state's permitting process is focused not on denying permits but moving projects forward.
"The permitting project in Alaska does not allow you to say 'no"', he said.
In a move that has the potential to stop the mine, the groups are urging the EPA to use its authority under Section 404(c) of the Clean Water Act to prohibit the discharge of dredged materials from the proposed mine.
The law allows the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to dispense permits for disposing of dredged mining materials. The law allows the EPA to veto those permits if it believes they will harm fisheries, wildlife, shellfish beds, recreational areas or municipal water supplies.
Tom Crafford, the Alaska Department of Natural Resources' large mine coordinator, said there have been mine projects in Alaska that have not survived the permitting process.
However, once a mine receives federal, state and local permits it's a different story. It may receive violation notices and be ordered to make changes, but the state has never gone so far as to permanently stop a mine from operating.
"We have never shut a mine down," Crafford said Friday.
John Shively, chief executive of Pebble Limited Partnership, the mining group promoting Pebble, said it's unclear whether invoking 404(c) would put a halt to Pebble because that depends on what kinds of fill and what locations for disposal of dredge materials would be unacceptable.
The impact on Pebble wouldn't be known until the project is permitted, he said.
Shively said in nearly every other case where 404(c) was invoked the mine had already received permits. It has been used only 12 times since 1971.
Tilden said the message the group received in Washington is that it has to get more scientific data to support its request.
The tribes have looked closely at the other cases.
"We felt very confident that this should be the 13th time that it should be invoked," he said.