Coalition of Bristol Bay tribes renews calls for permanent protections for the watershed

A helicopter lands near a test drilling site for the Pebble Mine in Southwest, Alaska on July,...
A helicopter lands near a test drilling site for the Pebble Mine in Southwest, Alaska on July, 23, 2007. The Pebble Partnership has selected John Shively as its chief executive officer.(AL Grillo | ASSOCIATED PRESS)
Updated: Jun. 10, 2021 at 3:34 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - A coalition of Bristol Bay tribes is calling for permanent protections for the watershed to be in place by the end of the year.

Alannah Hurley, executive director of the United Tribes of Bristol Bay, wants the Environmental Protection Agency to issue a protection through the Clean Water Act. The agency’s “veto” power is rarely used, but advocates say it would be meaningful.

Earlier in the week, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, traveled to Dillingham and said she is beginning discussions with stakeholders about using legislation to permanently protect the watershed.

The lobbying push from Bristol Bay tribal groups comes after the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers denied a key permit for the proposed Pebble Mine last November which is being appealed. Hurley said that was “a pivotal moment” for Bristol Bay but that more work needed to be done.

The proposed mine was recently dealt another blow when a village corporation from Iliamna Lake moved to protect land that overlaps with a possible transportation corridor for mineral resources.

“That was a major monumental step by Alaska Native landowners,” said Robin Samuelsen, chairman of the Bristol Bay Economic Development Corp.

The hope for these groups is to push the EPA under President Joe Biden to issue the permanent protections quickly, following promises he made on the campaign trail. Legislation could then deal more “holistically” to protect the watershed, Hurley said.

Representatives from the Bristol Bay tribes say they want permanent protections in place by the end of the salmon season, which marks the sixth anniversary of former President Barack Obama’s visit to the region. It also marks the anniversary of when the EPA issued a preemptive veto on the Pebble Mine which was then withdrawn in 2019.

The ultimate goal is to end long-running fights about resource development in the region, Hurley said, and to protect the world’s most productive sockeye salmon fishery.

Mike Heatwole, a spokesperson for Pebble Limited Partnership, said the proposed open-cut gold and copper mine is on state land and that ensuring responsible resource development could be critical for Alaska and the region.

“As Alaskans look for improvements to our long term economy, a project like Pebble should be fully vetted as it could create jobs, economic activity and revenue for the state,” he added by email. “This is especially important for the communities closest to the potential project where jobs are few and costs are high.”

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