Bristol Bay: Washington senator, chefs protest Pebble Mine

Two Bristol Bay fishermen pull sockeye salmon from a net near Naknek, Alaska. A Washington senator led a protest against a proposed mine in Bristol Bay, which a federal study showed would harm salmon.
(Al Grillo / Associated Press)
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SEATTLE -- Eight days after the federal government declared that a proposed mine in Alaska’s Bristol Bay would have a devastating effect on the world’s largest sockeye salmon fishery, a Washington senator and 250 chefs and food professionals demanded that the Obama administration stop Pebble Mine.

Standing between docks 7 and 8 in the Seattle Fishermen’s Terminal, Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) and chef Tom Douglas on Thursday denounced the controversial copper and gold mine proposed for the environmentally sensitive Bristol Bay and called on the administration to heed its own science.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Jan. 15 released a long-awaited scientific study of the proposed Pebble Mine, which would be the largest open-pit mine in North America. The report concluded that the mine could destroy up to 94 miles of streams where salmon spawn and migrate and up to 5,350 acres of wetlands, ponds and lakes.


“Now the science is in,” Cantwell declared, with Douglas and fishermen at her side and working boats behind her. “Oil and water don’t mix and neither do salmon and toxic mining pollution. After three years of study, it’s clear. The proposed Pebble Mine would poison the headwaters of these important Bristol Bay salmon watersheds.”

During the brief, chilly afternoon protest, Cantwell said she sent a letter to Obama urging that the mine be stopped. And she announced that Douglas and other restaurateurs and food professionals -- including chefs Alice Waters, Mario Batali and Tom Colicchio -- have also written to the president with the same demand.

The EPA’s scientific study is simply that; it comes with no automatic action. But, under the Clean Water Act, the agency has the authority to prohibit, limit or restrict the disposal, discharge or long-term storage of mining waste into waters within the United States.

John Shively, chief executive of Pebble Limited Partnership, which is developing the mine, views the EPA’s study as a purely “political document,” which ignores the kind of modern engineering and mitigation measures that would have to be instituted to get the necessary permits.

In the days since the EPA released the study, the political response has been mixed.

Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) has come out against the proposed mine, telling the Anchorage Daily News that it is the “wrong mine, wrong place, too big. Too many potential long-term impacts to a fishery that is pretty critical to that area but also to Alaska, to world markets.”

In a statement released Monday, the Pebble Partnership said, “We are disappointed that Sen. Begich has come out against thousands of new jobs, hundreds of millions in state revenue, and potentially billions in economic activity for Alaska.


“We also are stunned that an Alaskan senator supports the EPA -- a federal agency acting unilaterally -- to make decisions about future development on state land in Alaska,” the statement continued. “Finally, it is no secret that there is a substantial difference of opinion regarding the science of EPA’s recent Bristol Bay Assessment. Not many Alaskans think EPA is impartial.”

Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell has lambasted the EPA, calling the scientific study “little more than a pretext for an EPA veto of the state’s permitting process. … I will not trade one resource for another, and every permitting application -- when filed -- deserves scientific and public scrutiny based on facts, not hypotheticals.”

Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Rep. Don Young, both Republicans, also faulted the EPA for its assessment of the Pebble Mine.

“EPA’s assessment stops short of prohibiting responsible development in the Bristol Bay watershed, but the agency has strongly implied that this report will be a basis to preemptively veto economic opportunities in the region in the future,” Murkowski said in a written statement. “I remain convinced that a preemptive veto of a mine or any other project, which the agency claims it can do under the Clean Water Act, would set a terrible precedent for development in our state and across the nation.”

Said Young: “As I’ve said since the EPA embarked on this process, their involvement prior to the filing of a permit application makes a mockery of the statutory state and federal permitting process. This is a massive overreach by the EPA and an even bigger waste of federal dollars by an agency that has seen their budget reduced by over 20% since Republicans took control of the House in 2010. Spending millions of dollars performing unnecessary studies on fantasies begs for additional cost savings in their budget.”

But on Thursday, Alannah Hurley of the United Tribes of Bristol Bay advocated action against the proposed mine before permits have been issued. Speaking at the Fishermen’s Terminal during the afternoon protest, Hurley said that she is “tired of being held hostage by the cloud that this type of development has settled over our region.


“I am tired of watching my friends and family wonder, if this happens, how will we feed our children, how will our culture survive,” she told the crowd. “The people of Bristol Bay are sick and tired of the uncertain fate of our watershed that has fed the hearts and souls of our people for thousands of years.

“That’s why the time to act is now,” she said. “The science is clear. The people have spoken. The Obama administration needs to do the right thing.”


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