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EPA tours Bristol Bay to hear comments on plans that could prevent Pebble Mine

Subsistence salmon users spoke about their concerns for a resource they described as an essential source of food and culture for Alaska Natives.
Published: Jun. 16, 2022 at 3:48 PM AKDT
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JUNEAU, Alaska (KTUU) - Representatives from the Environmental Protection Agency are touring the Bristol Bay region to hear public comments on a plan announced last month that could prevent the proposed Pebble Mine from moving forward.

The EPA heard from dozens of residents in Dillingham Middle/High School on Thursday morning who were concerned about the impacts that the planned copper and gold mine could have on Bristol Bay’s sockeye salmon fishery. Subsistence salmon users spoke about their concerns for a resource they described as an essential source of food and culture for Alaska Natives.

Robin Samuelson, one of Bristol Bay Native Corp.’s board of directors, spoke about the plans for the mine near Iliamna Lake, and was adamant that “nobody is going to build up there. Nobody.”

“We live and die by our fish,” he added.

Bristol Bay is forecasted to see a record-breaking 75 million sockeye salmon this year. Commercial fishing is estimated to bring in $2 billion in economic activity.

United Tribes of Bristol Bay, a consortium of Southwest Alaska tribes, has long opposed the mine. It says that the EPA’s proposed protections are a “milestone” for the region but they want them to be stricter and permanent.

In 2014, the Obama administration issued a preemptive veto of the Pebble Mine, which had broader protections than the ones currently being considered by the Biden administration. President Donald Trump’s administration withdrew that preemptive veto, allowing for an environmental permitting process to move forward for the mine.

Pebble Limited Partnership submitted its development plan in 2017, but the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers rejected it in 2020, a few months before Trump left office, saying that it “would likely result in significant degradation of the environment and would likely result in significant adverse effects on the aquatic system or human environment.”

That contentious development plan makes up the basis for the Biden administration’s draft protections. Under the EPA’s current proposal, around 15% of the massive Pebble ore deposit would be off limits.

Opponents of the Pebble Mine want to see more of the Bristol Bay area protected so that developers could not get new plans approved in the future. They also want to see Congress pass protections to take the mine off the table for good.

Alaska’s Republican Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan have opposed the mine, echoing the late Sen. Ted Stevens, who said, “Wrong mine in the wrong place.”

Mike Heatwole, vice president of public affairs for the Pebble Limited Partnership, was in Iliamna on Thursday. The village has been more historically supportive of the mine than other parts of Southwest Alaska.

Heatwole is ready for the EPA’s next stop in Newhalen on Friday. He said the company is planning on participating in the town hall-style meetings there, and virtually on Thursday afternoon, against the EPA’s new “preemptive veto.”

“We will note the deficiencies we see in the document and the process including how it fails to include anything about the significant economic contribution the project could bring to the lake area communities and that the EIS (environmental impact statement) demonstrated it could be done without harm to the Bristol Bay fishery,” he said by email. “The EPA’s document is full of speculation, innuendo and light on facts.”

Pebble Limited Partnership has said the mine could provide 850 direct jobs and upwards of $84 million in annual tax and royalty payments during its operations. The copper and gold deposit is worth an estimated $500 billion.

The EPA will accept public comments on the proposed protections in Bristol Bay through July 5. A final determination is expected to be issued before the end of the year.

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