Pebble Mine Battle Extends to Lower 48

The battle over the Pebble Mine in Southwest Alaska is extending to the Lower 48. This week US Senator Maria Cantwell, from Washington State, sent a letter to the head of the EPA urging her to – if necessary – consider using the Clean Water Act to stop the development of the mine. If the EPA uses its veto power over the mine before the permitting stage, it would be a first for the federal agency.

In the letter to EPA administrator Lisa Jackson, Washington State Democratic Senator Maria Cantwell expressed support of the EPA’s decision to conduct a thorough, scientific analysis of the effect that a large-scale development project would have on the Bristol Bay Watershed, adding that Bristol Bay Salmon populations are “economic lynchpins” for commercial fishermen not just in Alaska but also in Washington State.

In her letter, Cantwell writes, “Should scientists determine that pollution from a large-scale development in the Bristol Bay watershed could have unacceptable adverse impacts on water quality and the fish stocks that depend on it, I would support efforts to prohibit or appropriately restrict such activities, including the utilization of Section 404-C of the Clean Water Act.”

404-C gives the EPA the power to veto permits required to develop the mine if it is determined that the impacts would be too damaging to waterways. If developed, the Pebble Mine could be the largest open pit mine in North America. The claim area spans 150 square miles near Lake Illiamna.   It’s estimated that more than 80 billion pounds of copper and more than 100 million ounces of gold could be extracted from the site, which is being explored by UK-based Anglo American and Canadian-based Northern Dynasty.

Supporters of the mine argue it would create jobs. Opponents argue the mine could leach toxic waste into the watershed, wrecking commercial, sport and subsistence fishing for generations to come. Barney Warren is a commercial fisherman from Washington State who’s fished for sockeye in Bristol Bay for nearly four decades. He says Senator Cantwell’s letter is a step in the right direction and he hopes more politicians will start speaking out to protect Bristol Bay.

There have been several attempts to stop or slow down development of the Pebble Deposit.    Those attempts included a state-wide voter initiative that was rejected and the recent request by several tribal and fishing entities to have the EPA step in and preemptively use its veto authority under the Clean Water Act. Last month, the Alaska Supreme Court approved a ballot initiative in the Lake and Peninsula Borough that could restrict permitting of any large project that would harm salmon runs. In a press release, Senator Cantwell says she’s been contacted by thousands of Washington State residents recently, expressing concern about the potentially harmful long-term impacts of the mine on Washington State businesses.

It’s estimated that in 2008, Bristol Bay yielded over $113 million dollars in total value for Washington State commercial fisheries while recreational salmon fisheries yielded an additional $75 million. And it’s not just fishing that brings home the money to Washington – it’s also processing.

Nearly all the major seafood companies that process salmon in Bristol Bay salmon have a footprint in Washington.

Nancy Blakey, Co-owner of Seattle-Based Snopac products, which has a plant in Dillingham, says if something went wrong with the mine, it would inventively impact her business.

Cantwell is sure to face opposition on the Pebble Mine issue from Alaska Republican Congressman Don Young, who introduced a bill earlier this year that would restrict the EPA’s reach, stripping the agency of its 404-C veto authority. Many well-known national environmental and conservations groups, including the Sierra Club and Trout Unlimited oppose development of the Pebble deposit, and politicians throughout Alaska have been taking sides, but Senator Cantwell is the first politician from outside Alaska to take a stance on the issue.

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Daysha Eaton is the News Director at KBBI in Homer. Daysha Eaton holds a B.A. from Evergreen State College, and a M.A. from the University of Southern California. Daysha got her start in radio at Seattle public radio stations, KPLU and KUOW. Before coming to KBBI, she was the News Director at KYUK in Bethel. She has also worked as the Southcentral Reporter for KSKA in Anchorage. Daysha's work has appeared on NPR's "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered", PRI's "The World" and "National Native News". She's happy to take assignments, and to get news tips, which are best sent via email. Daysha became a journalist because she believes in the power of storytelling. Stories connect us and they help us make sense of our world. They shed light on injustice and they comfort us in troubled times. She got into public broadcasting because it seems to fulfill the intention of the 4th Estate and to most effectively apply the freedom of the press granted to us through the Constitution. She feels that public radio has a special way of moving people emotionally through sound, taking them to remote places, introducing them to people they would not otherwise meet and compelling them to think about issues they might ordinarily overlook.