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Cantwell Urges White House To Stop Alaska Pebble Mine Project, Protect Fishermen

By | January 24, 2014 - 1:09 pm

People pray at Fisherman's Terminal in Seattle, before the start of a rally opposing a mining project in western Alaska. Fishermen in Washington say the project threatens salmon in Bristol Bay, where about 1,000 Washingtonians have permits to fish. Photo by Ed Ronco, KPLU - Seattle.

People pray at Fisherman’s Terminal in Seattle, before the start of a rally opposing a mining project in western Alaska. Fishermen in Washington say the project threatens salmon in Bristol Bay, where about 1,000 Washingtonians have permits to fish. Photo by Ed Ronco, KPLU – Seattle.

A U.S. senator from the Lower 48 is asking the White House to stop the Pebble Mine. Democrat Maria Cantwell, of Washington, says the proposed mine in Western Alaska threatens fishing jobs in her state.

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Fishermen’s Terminal in Seattle feels less like a slice of this big city and more like a coastal community in Alaska. Fishing boats are moored to floating docks. They ask what you’re up to in the nearby restaurants – and actually wait for you to answer. And around here, you’re more likely to see someone in Grundens than Gucci. But the connections between Washington and the 49th state run much deeper.

“Well, I’ve been fishing in Bristol Bay for the last few years,” Billie Delaney, from Port Townsend, north of Seattle, said.

And she’s among some 1,000 Washington residents who earn at least part of their living in Bristol Bay. Today, she’s part of a rally at Fishermen’s Terminal. A couple hundred people have turned out to oppose the Pebble Mine – a proposed project that would sit not far from the bay and its productive salmon habitat.

“The commercial fishery there is a renewable resource we’ll have forever if we manage it correctly,” Delaney said. “The mine would last about 80 years and completely destroy the culture and economy of that area.”

Senator Maria Cantwell agrees. On a stage in front of the crowd, the Washington Democrat calls the Pebble Mine a, quote, “giant cauldron of toxic waste.”

“I say that because the science shows this material would take hundreds of thousands of years to get rid of if it reached the watershed,” Cantwell said. “One mistake and that cauldron starts to seep into our water, into the fish, killing these important jobs.”

An EPA assessment says the mine would pose a danger to salmon and destroy miles of spawning grounds. Cantwell sent a letter to the White House asking President Obama to follow up on that EPA report, and use his authority to stop the project.

“Senator Cantwell’s request is unprecedented in the history of the EPA for a major resource project before it’s even had an opportunity to file for permits,” Mike Heatwole, spokesman for the Pebble Partnership, which wants to build the mine, said.

He says the project isn’t being given due process, and that it hasn’t even filed for permits yet. As for that damning EPA report?

“The EPA’s document is not conclusive science, but rather a political report intended to harm our project’s ability to apply for permits and frankly receive an objective review under the laws of our country,” he said.

Heatwole says the permitting process will be rigorous, and that the mine will have to comply with thick volumes of regulation to operate. He also says Pebble would be an important economic booster in a part of Alaska where the work is sorely needed. He says the fishing industry isn’t enough.

“Not to cast aspersion to the industry – it is an important economic engine – but if it was a healthy economic engine it would provide greater economic opportunities,” Heatwole said. “Our premise is that we want to have a project that co-exists with that fishery so that we can provide year-round job opportunities where right now there are simply none.”

Robert Masonis, the vice president for western conservation at Trout Unlimited, a nonprofit that opposes the mine, disagrees.

“That’s a very limited view of the economic benefits of the Bristol Bay fishery,” he said.

Masonis says year-round jobs are supported by the fishery, both in commercial fishing and sport fishing. He looks around at the 200 or so people who have gathered at the rally.

“It makes me hopeful,” Masonis said. “I think a lot of people are realizing just how special this place is, and how fragile it is. I think what we’re seeing is an outpouring of public support for the Obama administration to do the right thing and protect this area.”

Cantwell says the EPA’s report is new enough that it’s not surprising the Obama administration hasn’t acted. She’s hoping the people at this rally, and the letters she and others will send, change that.

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